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Archive for the ‘Whinge’ Category

Books by Paulo Fehlauer

Books by Paulo Fehlauer

So I spent the entire weekend reading books (and finished four all in a couple of days…reviews to follow) and have not really been paying much attention to the world of YA online. That is until Monday afternoon when I saw Liz B’s post on the YA Mafia debacle and her thoughtful comments. One could probably waste a good part of one’s day tracking this issue and I encourage all to read and make personal decisions as to the rights and wrongs. But, as a gal who writes reviews of YA Lit (on a sorta semi-regular basis), as someone who reads YA Lit almost exclusively, and as an individual who is professionally dedicated to putting great books into the hands of teen readers, I feel like this is an important debate.

Part of this kerfuffle is about posting critical reviews online. I totally support well-reasoned and articulated critique in all its varied forms. As a librarian who cannot possibly purchase every professional reviewing source, I consult YA bloggers’ reviews when making purchasing decisions for the YA collections. Some YA bloggers get copies to review from publishers before the books hit the shelves or actively attend the major conferences and can score ARCs from the publishers’ booths, which means I can get a sense of a book before it has been released and put it on order. Some bloggers and professional reviewing sources just print positive reviews. So if a book isn’t reviewed? Mockingjay by Suzanne CollinsThat doesn’t mean it isn’t worth purchasing; not every book is reviewed in a timely manner (i.e. Mockingjay didn’t have reviews out before publication because no one could get a copy to review…not than anyone would be crazy enough to not purchase a copy of it…but, you know) and no one blogger or group of bloggers can read everything (because that would be, you know, insane).

But even though I love to read a glowing review (especially of a book that I personally loved), critical reviews that point out weaknesses in a particular book also have an important place. When making purchasing decisions, I have to balance what I think might be popular in the community I serve and what are great books that have the potential for longevity or that support the curriculum. Sometimes those books are one in the Once Upon a Marigold by Jean Ferrissame (Once Upon a Marigold is on our local middle school reading lists, but is also a great recreational read), but often they are not. I know that I have mentioned it before, but this is one reason I particularly appreciate and subscribe to VOYA: I get a sense of both the quality and potential popularity of a work. And, although I am personally opposed to “content ratings” of YA books, having a very specific review that points out sexual content, rough language, violence, etc. of a particular title is useful when working with kiddos and parents in a readers’ advisory context. Those who work in school libraries (both private and public) are very familiar with the challenges they face in collection development. One particular passage might incite reconsideration requests from teachers or parents and not every school librarian has strong administrative support when it comes to fighting contested materials. Critical reviews have a place in helping those of us who order materials know broadly what we’ll be getting (or getting ourselves into).

Critical reviews also incite discussion and conversation. Those of us invested in young adult literature (whether as librarians, teachers, parents, published authors, aspiring authors, etc.) have a stake in literature for teens being recognized as important cultural and social products, worthy of our attention and study. Those who have been in graduate seminars or taken college lit courses can attest that critical analysis, whatever the discipline, can be utterly brutal. I remember my first semester in graduate school and taking an inter-disciplinary class in the women’s studies department. I was the only person in the class in my first Cindy Sherman/Librariansemester of graduate school and one of only two students working towards a master’s degree (everyone else was in a PhD program). Most of our grade was dependent on one final paper and I worked harder on producing something of quality for that class than on anything else that semester. Toward the end of our course we all had to give a presentation on our research, our methods and our conclusions. Coming from an interdisciplinary undergraduate program where I spent most of my time taking philosophy and art history courses, I had very little concept of “research methods.” I understood schools of thought and critical stances, but nothing anywhere close to a “methodology.” I was incredibly nervous presenting and although both of my professors were supportive and tried to make me feel comfortable, my peers totally beat me down with criticism. My research methods were inexact; my conclusions weak; my sources selective. I ended up getting a good grade on the paper and in the class. My professor even encouraged me to expand my research and submit it for publication. Were my peers wrong? No, they weren’t. Each and every one of them had been trained to pick every argument apart and to look for something “wrong”; nothing is perfect – there will always be something that could be improved upon.

Why does any of this matter? Because part of taking young adult literature “seriously,” rightly or wrongly, is to submit its products to a higher level of scrutiny. Just because one person feels that some elements in a book are flawed or that he or she personally did not quite get what the author was going for doesn’t mean the book is without merit, that the book is unworthy, or to even discourage others from reading it. It is to enter into a critical dialogue with a work as a reader. At least for me, there are plenty of things I enjoy that I can recognize as being problematic and imperfect. Recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of a cultural production makes us engaged viewers and consumers. I can read nutrition labels; I know that pint of Ben and Jerry’s Ben & Jerry'sHalf-Baked is no good for me; I’m going to eat some of it anyway, while simultaneously acknowledging that I’ll either need to push myself a little harder during my next work out or my hips will tell the tale of my indulgence. There’s a place in our lives for books that are Ben and Jerry’s, that don’t necessarily challenge us intellectually or emotionally. And there’s a place for those books that fill us up and cause us to question our lives or our world. But books don’t come with nutrition labels; we have to digest them and address them to figure out where they fit in our lives. Or we have to find people whose opinions we value to give us a hint as to whether or not a particular book is going to be worth our time (if it is something we might enjoy; if it is a decadent Ben & Jerry’s afternoon; or if it is something scrumptious and nutritious that will stay with us long after the reading, etc.).

Another part of this YA Mafia issue, however, is whether or not “negative” reviews can impact people’s perceptions of review writers and whether or not writing “negative” reviews can affect one’s professional pursuits.

Angry_Bread_Large by Psycholabs

Angry_Bread_Large by Psycholabs

As someone not seeking to be a published author in the creative writing sphere and with absolutely no experience in the publishing business, I have no insideknowledge of this. I do, however, think it is important to try one’s best to ensure that any publicly viewable material puts one in a good professional light. It seems easy to think that because it is online one can disassociate oneself from the product – or – because it is “for fun” that being flippant or snarky is appropriate. Either attitude does not create goodwill, I would think. Unless, of course, you just don’t care. But most of us have jobs we depend upon and personal or professional goals that go beyond our current daily routines. Something I’ve told teenagers I work with is useful in this context: people will judge you or make assumptions about you based on how you present yourself, how you communicate, how you dress, or what you look like. Is it right or fair? No. But it happens anyway. Whether or not a cabal of authors and/or publishers scour the internet looking for aspiring authors to take down (which I doubt), whatever is publicly accessible is fair game. Is it right to judge or make decisions about an aspiring author based on a critical or snarky review? Maybe not. But publicly available content is all part of a package and presentation.

One last comment and then I’ll leave it at that. I personally post critical reviews and there are plenty of books I have read that I didn’t particularly enjoy. My personal response is just that: personal. Am I entitled to my opinions? Yup, but not at the exclusion of anyone else’s. As a librarian I value the opinions and personal quirks of all the folks I work with. I have recommended plenty of books I personally did not enjoy (including books that I thought were poorly written, poorly edited, or for whatever reason rubbed me the wrong way). That is part of my job. I’m not a big fan of speculative fiction, but that does not stop me from recommending science fiction and fantasy titles to readers who enjoy the genres. I tend to be drawn to realistic fiction, historical fiction, and mysteries…but I do not solely recommend these types of books and I can’t assume that anyone will have the same taste that I do. I’m a firm believer of the “every book its reader, every reader his/her book” philosophy. There have been situations where I have read a book that I cannot imagine a group of readers or even a single person I would recommend it to. In a readers’ advisory situation, if I meet that reader, I will recommend that book. And in the mean time I put that book on display and hope a person who might not otherwise talk to me will find it and enjoy it.

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Hiatus…Blah!

I <3 UGLY by ~BostonBill~

I ❤ UGLY by ~BostonBill~

So you’ve probably been wondering (if, in fact, anyone has actually been reading this) where in the world I’ve been.  I started off the year with high hopes.  I had actually kept posting at least once (if not more than once) a week for a good streak there.  And then…nothing.

Part of my writing hiatus has been work related.  I’ve taken on some new and additional duties that sometimes take up my time at home (in addition to the committee work I already do at home).  And when I have had spare time I can quite honestly say I’ve been wasting it playing the Sims (although my Legacy family is chugging along quite well, thank you very much) and watching old episodes of Ugly Betty and Twin Peaks.

I also have this really bad habit of picking up another book as soon as I finish one and then I look back at my list of titles read and think…oh yeah, I should probably review that book I read two weeks ago.  Which makes writing a review a little difficult (I am a slow writer and, I think, a slow reader).

But…I’m back on the wagon.  So expect new content fairly soon.  You know, if you’re paying attention.

– txlibrarian

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The Skinny:  In a unique retelling of the Phantom of the Opera story, The Jumbee mixes the rich cultural heritage of the Caribbean with Shakespeare to create a romantic, suspenseful, and fantastical tale.  Nevertheless, in thrusting so many characters and plot themes at the reader, this debut novel from Keyes could have used tighter editing.  Whenever I review a book I try to think of which group of teens I might recommend it to; with The Jumbee I struggle to think of a person into whose hands I might place it.  Romance readers might not be particularly satisfied with the ending; paranormal readers might not be satisfied with the vaguely and ill-defined supernatural elements plaguing this novel; and for those who do not read typically read either genre, I do not think this would be a good introduction.

globe by Patrick Q
globe by Patrick Q

Setting: Cariba Island and Manchineel Cay, Current Day

From the time of her arrival to the (fictional?) island of Cariba, Esti Legard’s experience is punctuated by new sights, smells, music, and voices.  While the setting clearly takes place in an island country with an articulated history of slavery, of racial and ethnic diversity, and with cultural and religious specificity, the island is not so detailed as to tie it to any one location.  The nearby Manchineel Cay, a presumably treacherous island inhabited by dangerous supernatural beings, almost becomes a character in its own right; the warning signs posted along its shores and stories told by Cariba locals cast the island as a place that is not only home to evil beings but also as a force of nature that takes vengeance on those who encroach on her boundaries.

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Tri Sandwich Faces by G. Russell

Characters:

Esti (Serene Terra) Legard, the main character of The Jumbee, is presented as a complex character who, throughout the novel, struggles with the death of her father and the legacy he left behind.  Esti’s father, an internationally-known Shakespearean actor, died only months before she and her mother relocate from Oregon to Cariba and, as an actress herself, Esti both misses her father desperately for the guidance he once provided her and struggles to step out from behind his spotlight.  While Esti appears a very strong character, she feels she must continually strive to maintain an appearance of control and she believably wavers between her trust in Alan, her questioning of his motives, and in her feelings toward her long-time friend/potential boyfriend Rafe.  Nevertheless, Esti is not always well-defined; her motives are not always clear; and, ultimately, her character development wavers and is uneven.

Throughout most of the novel, Alan’s only presence comes through his voice and its effect on Esti, as well as events that transpire for which Alan is ultimately blamed.  While Esti credits Alan with giving her the confidence to act again and for imbuing her performance with a power she felt lacking since the death of her father, the death, illness, expulsion and accidents that seem to happen within the theater (and its community) and under Alan’s control make him a character worthy of suspicion.  Many believe that Alan is a Jumbee, an evil spirit that haunts the theater and the island, and question the relationship Esti seems to have forged with him.  Esti vacillates between believing in Alan’s humanness and questioning his reality.   In addition, Alan’s prior knowledge of Esti and her relationship with her father, as well as his emotional distancing and ultimate manipulation, make him down-right creepy.

Rafe Solomon and Esti were once childhood friends and the Solomon family maintains great influence on the island.  Having not seen each other for several years, Esti and Rafe meet again and almost immediately reconnect as friends.  Rafe, with his rakish good looks and bad-boy image, is well-known on the island as a player and many of the other women warn Esti against getting too close.  At first Esti pushes Rafe away due to her feelings for Alan, but after an altercation with Alan, Esti and Rafe begin tentatively dating.  Rafe, the once cad turned knight-in-shining armor, becomes more mature in a machismo-infused and very sudden way.

mouth by Darwin Bell

mouth by Darwin Bell

Voice:

Keyes’ narrative is limited third person, providing readers with Esti’s perspective.  Readers can palpably sense Esti’s self-doubt, from her lack of confidence in her acting to her struggle in determining whether Alan is a real person, a jumbee, or a figment of her imagination.  Based on the narrative voice, one might think readers could potentially learn more of Esti’s motivations or understand what calls her to take certain actions (or inactions as the case may be); I never felt that Esti was a very engaging or easy-to-follow character.  She demonstrates incredible strength at times, but quickly quashes all self-assurance by allowing herself to be continually manipulated by Alan and his voice.  Up to the very end, Esti acts possessed…but not in a fashion I think the author would have hoped for in this pseudo-supernatural romance.  Blending Shakespearean dialogue with contemporary language and Caribbean dialect, The Jumbee gives readers a glimpse of realms with which they might not otherwise be familiar – including the Caribbean and the world of drama.  Integrating lines from Shakespeare plays and sonnets also provides readers with an opportunity to analyze and understand his difficult language within a contemporary narrative.

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Abstract (design) by tanakawho

Style:

Keyes’ combination of Shakespearean dialogue and poetry, contemporary language and Caribbean dialect is unique and the story, despite multiple layers, reads easily.  Nevertheless, at times the Caribbean dialect seems forced and the addition of Caribbean traditions and beliefs often appears flimsy and undeveloped.  Rather than reading as a Caribbean and modern take on Phantom of the Opera, The Jumbee can occasionally feel like the Phantom of the Opera with an “ethnic” veneer.  The characters who could potentially give depth to the traditional beliefs of the Cariba Islanders, such as Lucia and Ma Harris, feel completely cursory and often appear in the narrative, deus ex machina style, to quickly explain why Esti should be fearful of Alan and, again, to explain away Alan’s unique existence.

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Interesting Basics – Yellow Triangle by qthomasbower

Story:

More than anything, The Jumbee is a retelling of Phantom of the Opera with a twist of Romeo and Juliet.  Esti moves to the island to begin again, to rediscover herself as an actress, and to escape the long shadow of her father, The Great Legard.  Immediately there are some very strange circumstances that accompany her arrival: the sudden death of a classmate; increased competitiveness amongst her peers; and a voice that seems to speak to only her, advising Esti of how to break away from her father and to fulfill her own dreams.  As the voice, Alan, begins to become more and more a part of her life, Esti withdraws from her mother, her new friends, and from a potential relationship with heartthrob Rafe.  Although the physical aspect of Esti’s relationship with Alan is tenuous (Esti perceives his touch; Alan leaves Esti small tokens), she develops a bond with his voice that keeps her from becoming emotionally involved with other people and this relationship flirts with destructiveness throughout the novel.  Even in the end, when Esti learns the truth of Alan, she is conflicted and relies on him to ultimately make her final choice.  As the school’s preparations for and performances of the play Romeo and Juliet figure prominently within the book, one can also draw parallels between the two stories of star-crossed lovers.

I cannot claim to have a very close or sophisticated knowledge of Phantom of the Opera; I have never read Leroux’s book and saw only one stage production of the musical many years ago.  But based on my reading of a synopsis of the original text on Wikipedia (do not cite this at home, kids), I’m going to step out on a limb and state that I think The Jumbee might be modeled too closely on the original for modern comfort, by which I mean that the very manipulative, stalker-ish feel to the relationship between Alan and Esti just might not read well for contemporary readers.  I think there is a line between creating a creepy narrative (check) and making a story that is not very believable or consistently plotted but is also incredibly creepy in a way I’m not sure was intended (double check).  That Alan might be an evil spirit of a long-dead vicious slave owner isn’t even the most disturbing part of this book.  The relationship he forges with Esti is emotionally and, one might even argue, physically abusive.  And while Esti sort of comes to terms with this and tries to help Alan, I never feel as though either character enacts change and that, if things were different, their relationship could go back to the way it had been with no discussion of how destructive and dangerous it had been or could be again.

two lines two shadows by miuenski

two lines two shadows by miuenski

Themes:

Throughout the novel, characters try to live with loss.  Esti and her mother, Aurora, both respond to the death of their father and husband in very different ways.  Esti’s grief is tinged with guilt, feeling as though she distanced herself from her father before his death and was never able to recover the close relationship they once had.  She both misses his presence in her life tremendously and wants to step away from his influence, which leads to more guilt that she ever could or would try to find satisfaction in acting without him.  Aurora is also grieving in ways that, as readers, we do not often see, but helps make obvious her emotional and physical absence from Esti’s life. They might live together, but Aurora suffers her loss most often alone and with wine.  That Romeo and Juliet plays such an important role in the narrative also brings to the forefront a love that is tied up with loss and grief.

Esti also struggles with self-actualization, a theme which structures her character development.  Esti is an actress who has always struggled to live up to the high expectations foisted upon her because of her father’s fame.  She acts not only for herself, but for her father’s memory, which complicates her desire to both take advantage of the lessons her father instilled in her and to create a separate identity.  While Esti believes Alan has helped her come to terms with her father’s death, as well as improve her acting skills, Esti ultimately begins to realize that no one can truly save her (although caring folks in her life are there to support her) and that change can only come from within.

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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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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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PopcornI am continually astounded by folks who have interesting blogs, smart and thoughtful things to share, and a wealth of ideas and enthusiasm.  One librarian for whom I have tremendous respect (and whose blog I read regularly) is Elizabeth Bird of New York Public Library.  Although she is technically a children’s librarian (and I spend my time banging my head against a wall trying to get through to teenagers), I am always learning something new by reading her posts and am inspired by her seemingly ceaseless supply of energy.  Not only does Elizabeth Bird hold down a job as a children’s librarian at a super fabulous branch of a very well-respected library system, but she has also served on the Newbery Committee, has written for Horn Book, posts what seems like every day to her blog at the School Library Journal website, and is getting ready to have a picture book published in the coming year.  Oh yeah, and she gets to live in New York.  I’m not exactly sure where she lives, but she recently posted that she could hear the New York marathon “ending, virtually, just outside my door.”  <sigh>

I know we can’t all be Elizabeth Bird.  If that were possible, there would be so many more of her.  I, for one, would really like to bottle a little bit of what seems like her never-ending supply of energy.  Considering that this is plainly impossible, I just wonder if there are some realistic strategies for replenishing our energy when the day-to-day gets so exhausting and repetitive.  What are the tips and tricks of staying inspired, of continually staying energized, of trying new things, of preventing burn-out? 

I’ve been trying to plan after school programs for the next few months and, with each passing month, I wonder what is something new and exciting I could incorporate?  I look at the schedules of other libraries and think to myself “we’re already hosting a program like that” or “we don’t really have an outdoor space to do that one” or “I wonder how they get kiddos to come participate in that.”  Even when I ask our Teen Advisory Board members what they’d like to see on the schedule, they will often times recommend programs we already offer (but, for some reason, they don’t attend) or give me ideas that are way outside the range of plausibility (“We should set up a paintball range in the reference section”…yeah, right; that’ll fly).  Being a librarian definitely calls for creativity and taking some amount of risk, especially if you have a focus on providing community programming.  If the participants still enjoy the program, does it matter if it is an old standard?  Does our frustration with the same-old, same-old shine through and influence the experience of participants?  It has to, surely.  So when you’re busting out the trusty Wii, popping the popcorn, putting together a cart of craft supplies, or mixing up a gallon of lemonade for what seems like the four-thousandth time, how do you keep the wide-eyed excitement that came with making all this happen for the first time?  I don’t really have an answer to this conundrum.  Partially it seems to come down to attitude.  If I’m having a bad day or am already stressed, facing the same program for the millionth time is going to elicit a different response than if I’m having the absolute best day.  So putting myself in a “this is going to be the best program ever” frame-of-mind each time I get ready for an event could certainly help me with my personal fulfillment and help make the program more enjoyable for those attending.  But beyond that, how do we continually deliver great programs that elicit excitement from our kiddos, while at the same time stretch us creatively and professionally?

I suppose it comes down to continually searching, continually trying, and continually reinventing ourselves.

Flickr CC: Popcorn – 46/365 Photo by: Wahlander

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Barnes and Noble CafeIn terms of library architectural design, interior décor, and service model, more and more libraries are following the cult of using highly successful, for-profit businesses as inspiration.  Some libraries, facing cinched and slashed budgets, have had little other choice than to sell themselves to for-profit management companies that, in effect, privatize public libraries.

What is going on here?

The business inspiration in customer service, planning and presentation is by no means new.  Since Barnes and Noble and Borders became increasingly popular, libraries looked at these businesses and asked: what makes these companies successful?  We provide the same content…but for free!  Why are people paying for the pleasure of reading and actually hanging out in a bookstore?  Enter the coffee shops (like UT’s PCL or Georgetown Public Library’s coffee/sandwich shop), the comfy chairs, the beautiful cover-facing shelving displays, the vibrant interior colors.  Rather than have a circulation or reference desk, we now have “Customer Service” and “Information” desks.  Public Librarians are no longer thought of as public servants, but instead as customer service representatives.

Now I’m not saying these changes are all bad.  I mean, who could say that comfy chairs and nice displays and cup of overpriced coffee are all bad…really?  I think the problem lies in libraries scrambling for relevance and looking in the wrong places for inspiration.  For example, many people seem to believe that librarians are capable of extraordinary things: we’re expected to give medical, legal, tax, and financial advice (and people get pretty testy when you tell them you can’t); we’re expected to be able to sit down and edit everyone’s resumes and term papers; we’re expected to know every book that a customer has checked out in the past 20 years.  Does anyone approach a Barnes and Noble or Best Buy staff member and expect them to give them medical advice or financial planning tips?  No!  People come into the public library and expect everything for free: free access to computers, free printing, free faxing, free office supplies, free tax forms, free access to incredibly expensive software, etc.  Does anyone go into the Barnes and Noble and Borders and complain that, although they have free wi-fi, that they don’t provide the actual computers so that this angry customer can do some very important business (i.e. play Farmville for three hours)?  No!

Even if the expectations the public hold for public libraries and librarians are many times misinformed, there are several services that libraries provide that no private company or business do – free access to printed and electronic materials; free access to computers and internet; free access to cooperative services (such as interlibrary loan or request exchange); free access to cultural and community programming; free access to facilities (is it too hot out today?  Stop by the public library!).  Although public libraries are most often funded through a combination of tax dollars (locally, state-wide, nationally), they provide services that are ostensibly FREE.  For example, I’m going to guesstimate that, based on population, each person living in Austin is entitled to around $14 of service each year.  Some people will not take up the city on the services available through APL, but the people who do use library services (and use them frequently) are more than making up for those that don’t.  There are approximately 1.75 million people living in Austin, but APL had 3.74 million visitors in the past fiscal year.  (No, I do not work for APL, but I did make use of their handy fact-sheet).  After a couple of interlibrary loan requests and running off with a pen and a few paperclips, that customer has gotten their fair share.  I’m not proposing we begin charging or cutting people off once they’ve gotten an allotted amount; just trying to put things in perspective.

I strongly believe that we cannot have it both ways.  We can’t try to follow a business model that closely and then espouse free access to all services.  We can’t charge for various services and then continue on as though we’re strictly a public service unit.  Instead of looking to for profit businesses as inspiration, we should look to the history of public libraries and draw inspiration from the core (and rather radical) values of not-for-profit public access to information.  Even if we’re now, more than ever, moving in the direction of community centers, rather than purely educational institutions, we need to insist on our value as community partners.

Just my two cents.

Flickr CC: Barnes and Noble Cafe Photo by: bclinesmith

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