It’s only Thursday and it’s been a busy week at The Hub!
The Simpsons episode that aired on Sunday dealt with YA/MG lit (with special guest star Neil Gaiman as himself). I was really impressed with how well they know the field and with the insight they had into the publishing industry. Sarah Debraski and I talked about the episode in a post on Tuesday.
Sci-fi and fantasy author Anne McCaffrey passed away on Monday; her books were among my absolute favorites in middle school and really shaped me:
I read fantasy and sci-fi almost exclusively from late elementary school through early high school, and especially in middle school, I think I read (and re-read) more of Anne McCaffrey’s books than any other author’s. Her Pern books got me so hooked on dragons that I started writing my own story about dragons. It stole liberally from other fantasy novels I was reading at the time, had absolutely no plot or character development, and rambled on and on (and on) for pages, but it consumed me for months. It’s embarrassing to read now, but I keep it as a testament to my obsession with dragons and Ms. McCaffrey, and with her ability to build worlds so real I became lost in them.
Librarianship isn’t a particularly glamorous job. There are fun parts and exciting parts and opportunities for greatness, yes, but in general, it’s not something you do for the prestige. Every once in a while, though, you do get the chance to do something pretty awesome.
I had one of those chances this month: I got to interview James Patterson over the phone. We talk about authors as rockstars, but James Patterson really is a Big Deal. Recently, his books have sold more copies than Dan Brown’s, John Grisham’s, and Stephen King’s combined.
This interview happened because as part of our 31 Days of Authors at The Hub, we’re featuring the people who brought us the titles that made this year’s Teens’ Top Ten list–and because Mr. Patterson preferred a phone call over an email exchange. I was super-nervous, but I think it went well! I wrote up the highlights of our conversation in a post for The Hub today. Click through and give it a read! I learned some interesting things about his writing process and how he sees his books especially.
A few months ago, the Library History Buff Blog did a piece on early children’s rooms in public libraries. While the piece was short, I thought it was especially interesting to see the motivations behind offering library services and facilities for young people:
Although various libraries including the Boston Public Library lay claim to having the first public library children’s room, the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts seems to have the strongest claim. Their children’s room was established in June of 1890 primarily to get noisy children out of the adult reading room. It was initially supervised by the library’s janitor.
John Cotton Dana of the Denver Public Library–the first to offer dedicated children’s services in 1894–did say, “If public libraries are of value, this form of a children’s department must be, if not the ideal thing, certainly an ideal thing.” But in 1896, Mary Wright Plummer found only 15 public libraries nationwide that provided services from a children’s room.
We’ve certainly come a long way in providing library services to young people since then, but how many libraries don’t have a dedicated teen space or even a dedicated YA librarian? (This seems like a good point to plug YALSA’s Teen Services Evaluation Tool, a rubric based on YALSA’s Core Competencies that you can use to assess your library’s success in having the resources and desire to provide great service to teens.) There’s always progress to be made!
Sarah of Glass Cases recently wrote an essay called “YA: Then vs. Now” with an interesting mix of history of YA lit as well as personal reflections on growing up with the YA lit of the ’90s and musings on some historically significant titles. In the essay, she’s trying to pinpoint when YA lit turned the corner from “writing about teens” to “writing for teens.” Especially since I’m about the same age, it was a pretty interesting read.
And man, if you want some vintage YA lit, check out the Mod-Mod Read-In Paperback Book List featured on Sara Ryan’s blog. It’s pretty groovy (click through for more scans and some analysis of the chosen titles):
You know what we need? More recognition of awesome women who rock out in their fields. While librarianship has historically been a women’s profession, anything to do with computers or programming has generally been branded as being for men (although one of the first computer programmers was a women!). But what about the people who exist at the intersection of libraries and computers? The Geek Feminism Blog recently featured Henriette Avram, who was a programmer who worked for the Library of Congress and who is responsible for the creation of MARC in the 1960s. Awesome.
Women ruining everything (again)
Of course, not everyone wants to recognize women’s accomplishments. Some would rather distance themselves from women in the workplace because apparently women defile everything they touch and even just being associated with women or what they do will ruin you and your career. At least, that seems to be the gist of Penelope Trunk’s blog post “What To Get Ahead? Stay Away From Women.” (It is possible that she doesn’t mean what she says, that she is writing these things ironically or sarcastically or in some other way where I can believe she’s not for real, but I don’t think that’s the case.)
Trunk’s starts with the idea of a “competition gap” wherein women self-select themselves into lower-paying, less prestigious fields, and that even within their chosen field, they go for “support roles” rather than competitive management positions, or–in her case–even if they are in a “man’s field,” they choose to focus on womanly things, like writing about women and their lives. This is true! We do value competition and men over nurturing and women. (And I’ve written about this before in the context of libraries.)
But rather than having a problem with privileging things that are labeled male over things that are labeled female, rather than trying to elevate the prestige of “women’s work,” she wants women to just stop complaining about this gap:
The thing is that Kimberly concludes in her post that women are getting ripped off. It kills me. I don’t want to be writing next to women who believe that women are getting a raw deal and then complain about it. I don’t buy it.
Women are getting a raw deal if they’re constantly being told that choosing things that interest them and that they value, that being a woman are bad things and that if they were just more manly, they’d succeed. So what’s Trunk’s advice?
Women: It is very bad to write stuff about dinner with family if you are trying to get ahead. Do not do this. People assume that if you have kids you will do less work. This may or may not be true – I mean, doing less work. But what is true is that you should not talk about family at work if you want to be in the all-boys departments.
But here’s the thing: I don’t want to be in the all-boys departments. I want to do work that is meaningful to me, and I want society to value that work. Every day, I work in a public library with teens–I think the only way it could be more women’s work is if I were working with children–and that work has an impact on those teens and on my community. I am proud of what I do. I’d like for other people to value that as much as they value technology, competition, and dudeliness.
Some encouraging successes
Wow, after that downer, let’s talk about some good things that have happened recently!
Michelle Luhtala, the librarian at the high school in the town that my library serves, is hands-down totally awesome. She’s really plugged into technology and the importance of tech in libraries and schools, she’s a webinar facilitator for edWeb.net, she’s been named Librarian of the Year by CLA, she was recently elected Director of Region 1 of AASL, she churns out instructional tools like crazy, and she has a great relationship with her students. Last year her library was one of two to be named AASL’s National School Library Program of the Year, and earlier this month Nancy Everhart, the president of AASL, made New Canaan High School her Connecticut stop on her nationwide tour.
More good news: at the beginning of this year, a controversy erupted when the director of the Enfield (CT) Public Library was told the library couldn’t show Michael Moore’s “Sicko” as part of their ongoing film program. The library was eventually allowed to show the movie, which was a victory in itself, but the director was also recently recognized by the Connecticut Library Association with an Intellectual Freedom Award.
There are lots of successes we have each day that are never officially recognized with awards but are just as meaningful. David Lubar recently wrote a LiveJournal post about an email he received from a parent about how his books had so captured her son’s imagination that he had gone from below grade-level reading to above grade-level–and that he’d begun writing his own stories. That’s really powerful stuff.
I’ve recently had a couple of those moments–maybe smaller, but no less encouraging–myself. I’m organizing a Minecraft competition at my library (I’m planning to talk about it in detail once it’s happened) and one of my TAB kids is helping spread the word to her friends on Facebook. Her post was attracting a few comments, and then one of her non-library-going friends wrote, “That’s actually like way too cool for a library to be doing,” and seeing that totally made my day. I am changing non-library users’ perceptions of what a library is and does!
And then last week, a former borderline troublemaker came over to me and out of nowhere said that I was doing a good job of standing up for teens and that I was making the library a better place for teens. He couldn’t have made me happier if I’d been feeding him lines to parrot back at me! And then he asked if he could join our Teen Advisory Board!
So you know, haters gonna hate–but I’m doing my job and it’s having an impact on my community and I feel good about that. And you should feel good about your work, too! What encouragement have you received recently?
I know I’m a little late to the conversation, but after reading MOCKINGJAY last Friday, I needed some time to digest and reflect. I’m still not finished reading all of the MOCKINGJAY reviews and meditations on the blogs I follow, so apologies if I’m not linking to other relevant blog posts. And this will contain spoilers, so if you still haven’t read MOCKINGJAY (why haven’t you read MOCKINGJAY yet?!), mark this as unread or bookmark it for later.
Also this is super-long (sorry), but I think MOCKINGJAY–and the whole trilogy–really packs a lot in and I’ve had a whole week to think about everything. You’re lucky it’s not longer!
Hearing Suzanne Collins read
Last Friday I got to see Suzanne Collins read from Catching Fire and Mockingjay and get a custom-stamped book. I took pictures and was planning to include them in this post, but a cell phone mishap in the last week means they’re lost to the ether. But Jennifer of YABOOKNERDwas there, too, so you can check out her post about the reading.
Anyway, hearing Collins read was especially interesting because she reads Katniss with a “futuristic Appalachian accent.” And you know, given that District 12 is what used to be Appalachia, that makes sense, but I hadn’t been reading Katniss’s voice that way, so hearing her with an accent subtly changed my perception of the character–and I like it. Fan opinion has been mixed and it’s interesting to see what connotations individual people assign to southern accents. For me, it emphasizes that Katniss is from somewhere remote and backward and makes her seem… not simple, but certainly not an intellectual. I like the extra dimension it gives her.
After reading the passage in Catching Fire where Katniss’s wedding dress burns away during her interview with Caesar Flickerman, revealing the black dress underneath and turning her into a mockingjay, Collins read the first chapter of Mockingjay and then started stamping books.
Totally worth the wait!
After thanking Collins and collecting a few more temporary mockingjay tattoos and the bag clip I’d won in a post-it-under-the-chair-style raffle, I made a trip to RJ Julia Booksellers, who’d sponsored the event. I was impressed with their selection of young adult and middle grade titles and bought more books than I probably should have! But I like the chance to support independent booksellers–especially ones who score such great author visits!
As soon as I got home, I dove straight in and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening and night reading. But before I talk about Mockingjay, I want to reflect a little on some thoughts I had while re-reading The Hunger Games and Catching Fire last week to get reading for Mockingjay.
The Hunger Games and Catching Fire
First off, I can’t believe how much of Catching Fire I’d forgotten! I’d started The Hunger Games one afternoon after class and stayed up super-late to finish it, but that didn’t compare with how I blazed through Catching Fire (hur hur) after receiving an ARC at ALA Annual 2009. I guess tearing through it that quickly really affected my retention. This time I read more slowly, thinking more about themes and watching common threads through the narrative.
The first time I read the first two books, I didn’t feel particularly interested in the Peeta-Katniss-Gale love triangle. I was much more interested in Katniss’s survival, in the upcoming overthrown of the Capitol, and in learning more about District 13. And I was also a little irritated that everyone I talked to seemed to think that Katniss had to choose one of them, because in the book she talks about how she never wants to get married and have children because she’d have to watch them go through the Reaping. Why couldn’t Katniss just choose herself and not be defined by the boy she picked? I think that Malinda Lo does a great job of making this point. When I was pressed, I would claim allegiance to Team Gale, because I wanted Katniss to be able to move on and have a life after the arena, and Gale represented the unspoiled part of her life to me. Gale also stood for the revolution, which I was excited about because revolution–successful or thwarted–is always the exciting part of dystopian lit.
But after rereading THG and CF one right after the other, I couldn’t believe how much my feelings about this had changed. I was still firmly on Team Katniss for all the reasons Malinda Lo outlined, but if she was going to wind up with one of the boys, I didn’t see how it could be anyone other than Peeta. I think Angie Manfredi’s argument that being on Team Peeta is a feminist statement is an interesting one (she also mentioned in an email to the YALSA-bk listserv that Peeta does stereotypically “feminine” things, whereas Gale does “masculine” things like mining and hunting), but for me it’s was more an in-world consideration of Katniss’s future. Especially with her nightmares and Peeta’s ability to comfort her, I don’t see how she could wind up with anyone who wouldn’t be able to understand her time in the arena, that part of her life that had so shaped who she was–and Peeta (and possibly Haymitch) is the only one who could ever understand that. Gale could comfort her and try to offer her normalcy, but being in the Games so changed her that I don’t think she could return to that normal life like I’d previously wanted for her. If it was going to be anyone, it was going to be Peeta.
The first time I read Catching Fire, I was caught by surprise at Katniss’s return to the Games. I’d been hoping for more on the mounting rebellion in the second book, and to have her return to the arena almost felt recycled. But after re-reading it (especially doing so immediately after finishing The Hunger Games), I was struck by how putting Katniss back in the arena did give us a chance to see the growing rebellion. Her preparation for the Games and then her time actually competing was markedly different because of the way the tributes were friends, acknowledged each other, and even stood in solidarity against the Capitol. The preparation and competition were peppered with incidents of teamwork and defiance–and really, these stories are told from Katniss’s perspective, so seeing small things like the tributes standing hand-in-hand after their interviews or the sacrifice that Mags made was a more realistic introduction to the rebellion than some sort of seismic political change or bloody invasion or whatever. In Catching Fire, we get a very local view of how everyday life is changing and how even big events seemingly entirely under the Capitol’s control are showing weakness.
I also think that sending Katniss back to the Games was a good way to make whatever happened in Mockingjay even more shocking and different. The Capitol’s grip on the population certainly wasn’t strong enough to have another round of the Games, and the danger Katniss was in after being snatched from the arena–and the unknown perils Peeta was facing since he wasn’t rescued!–was much more immediate than the relatively gentle cliffhanger at the end of The Hunger Games. After reading the first two books in the series, you know that whatever comes next in the third book was going to be different and much more dangerous.
And was Mockingjay ever different! This was a very grim book. I mean, the subject material in the first two books is surprisingly heavy, but it had a dash of adventure to it with Katniss trying to fight for her life and survive another day, another minute. There was some excitement in the prospect of a rebellion against the evil Capitol. But in Mockingjay, we’re thrown into the dirty, gritty details of that rebellion, and there’s nothing adventurous or exciting about it.
Katniss is a broken shell of her former self, haunted by nightmares and a directionless anxiety. She’s having a hard time getting by on a day-to-day basis, and her relationships are fractured. Life in District 13 isn’t some sort of paradise where refugees from District 12 are living happy lives–it’s strictly-regulated with daily schedules, brutally-enforced portion control at meals, and plenty of knowledge available only on a need-to-know basis. Life–and the narrative of that life–feels hopeless and dark and relentlessly soul-crushing.
But as strictly-regulated as life in District 13 is, there’s also a certain lack of structure in that no one knows what the future holds. In the earlier books, there was structure for both the characters and the readers in the rituals around the Games. But in Mockingjay, there are no Games and all of the previous structure provided by life in the oppressive grip of the Capitol are gone. There’s less direction, less certainty, less assurance that things will go as planned–or that there will even be a world left in which things and plans exist. The rebels might win against the Capitol, but they might be utterly crushed, and even if they did win, at what cost would that victory come?
The horrors of people’s lives up until that point–being in the Games or being firebombed out of District 12–and the strain of the rebellion and the integration into District 13 and the fear and uncertainty of the future take their toll on everyone. Katniss struggles mentally to hold together the pieces of her life, but so do lots of other people around her. The survivors of the Games are the worst off, and it seems like everyone is on the brink of insanity. This is a very psychological story. Katniss is literally unable to function in certain situations, and other characters make progress only to be shattered again by a simple reminder of the horrors of the past. Everyone is constantly revisiting their own worst moments, unable to escape them. I really can’t talk enough about how dark and anxiety-filled this story is.
That emotional trauma and brokenness and the horror of war seem to be the focus of Mockingjay. The first two books certainly dealt with the perverted pleasure our society takes in violence, and with violence as a means of control, but all of that is turned up to 11 in Mockingjay. Not only is the Capitol bombing hospitals as a form of psychological warfare, the rebels themselves are torturing prisoners, developing weapons that target the weak, and using propaganda to rally citizens in every district. Especially by the end, we see that Coin is no better than Snow–and is maybe even worse. This isn’t a simple story of good versus evil, or the citizens versus the government, or hope versus oppression. It is just violence against violence, inhumanity against inhumanity, with no end in sight.
And Collins creating this world of violence and darkness doesn’t come from nowhere. The rebellion seems like it’s especially violent and the Capitol especially evil, but I think there are real parallels to our world now. Especially for teens who have grown up with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and who have maybe had older siblings or cousins or parents go and fight and maybe return or maybe not (or for those actual young adults who have been to war), I think the scenes of walking through the deserted streets of the Capitol, wary of the traps the government has left that might at any moment kill some or all of them must seem especially real. Is there any real difference between the Capitol’s pods and roadside bombs in Afghanistan? Is our bombing of weddings all that different than the Capitol’s bombing of a hospital?
And that kind of darkness seems to reside in individual people as well. In the previous books, Katniss was confronted with her own brutality as she realized that she was utterly focused on survival, whereas Peeta was trying to retain his humanity in the face of the Games. She didn’t understand that idea at first when they sat on the roof together before their first time in the arena, but she later saw what he was saying, that she didn’t want to just be another piece in the Capitol’s games. And in Mockingjay, she’s again confronted by her own inner darkness. We’re not just talking a little character flaw here: there’s a real cruelty inside Katniss that she often has to fight against. She worries about using people in her own games and at the end when the rebels have successfully overthrown the Capitol, she votes to have a final Hunger Games with children of the Capitol to rub their faces in their defeat. And the final act that allowed the rebels to triumph was the bombing of children and then the medics who tried to save them–and I do think that it was the rebels who set off those bombs and not the Capitol. It seems that Collins is saying that within all of us–both in our characters and in our psyches–there is a darkness capable of incredible cruelty and destruction.
I think that the love triangle–or what remained of it in Mockingjay, since Katniss is completely incapable of dealing with other people in any way–embodies the essential, overarching struggle in this whole trilogy. Peeta represents retaining our humanity, compassion, and having limits to what we’ll do to get what we want, even to survive. For Peeta, the ends do not justify the means. Gale, on the other hand, is single-minded in his drive to overthrown the Capitol. He is willing to kill children and medics to win. He doesn’t understand Katniss’s compassion for her prep team; for him, they’re simply part of the Capitol’s machine. And in Mockingjay, it seems like Gale is going to survive and that Peeta is not. Peeta is presumed dead, Peeta seems to have capitulated to the Capitol, Peeta is so completely no longer himself that he wants to kill Katniss, Peeta is a broken shell of his former self that cannot tell reality from propaganda. But by the end, while Gale has a fancy new job assigned to him by the rebels, Peeta has regained his humanity and it is with him–with that recognition of maintaining our compassion and our ability to empathize and know when we are fighting evil with evil–that Katniss lives out the rest of her life. Readers who are still upset that Katniss didn’t wind up with Gale miss the entire point of the trilogy.
Katniss’s struggle against being another piece in the Capitol’s games at first brought to mindTally’s struggle to write her own story in the Uglies trilogy. Throughout each of the books, it seems like she’s a pawn in someone else’s powerplay, and the final scene in the book is about her finally being able to take charge of the direction of her own life, to be her own person. It seems hopeful. But even though Mockingjay ends with relative peace, with Katniss returning to District 12 and restarting a life there, with her and Peeta together, and even–in the future–with children, I didn’t feel that sense of hope at the end. Even though she was moving on, it seemed like she was irrevocably broken and the best she could hope for was that her children would have a whole and happy life. Katniss might be able to go on and live a life with Peeta, but she’s never going to get a fresh start. She’s always going to carry with her what happened–what she saw, what she did, what happened to all of the people that she lost. When I finished the last sentence of Mockingjay and closed the book, I still felt haunted by what had happened. I felt such heartbreak over everything that had happened, over the brokenness in everyone’s lives, and all the pain they’d experienced. How could anyone ever be whole again after that?
I think, too, that Prim’s death is especially heartbreaking because it comes at the very end, it’s senseless, and she seemed to have been doing okay. It seemed like Katniss was going to be forever broken, but that Prim might have some hope because of Katniss shielding her, that she might become a doctor and have a better life than she would have in District 12, despite everything that happened to get her there. But then her death is part of an especially heinous act on the part of the group that seemingly gave her those opportunities. What I think is really interesting, though, is that I was so emotionally invested in her and her future that her death was heartbreaking–but children being sacrificed for no good reason (for evil, even) is exactly what had happened every year for the last 75 years in the Hunger Games. I guess it can be easy for all of those children who died in the arena to just become numbers, but Collins makes sure you get the emotional impact of a character being senselessly cut down in her prime at least once. You take that emotional devastation and extrapolate over generations to see the brutality of the Huger Games–and then extrapolate again to our own world, to our own wars, to our own cruelty.
Some final thoughts
I think Mockingjay is absolutely the most powerful of the trilogy. In it, we get more: more information about the world in which Katniss lives, more violence and survival, more confrontation of the darkness within and around us, and more wrestling with man’s inhumanity to man. But it’s also very different than the first three books, and I can certainly imagine readers walking away from Mockingjay feeling betrayed or disappointed or hurt. I don’t really see how the series could have ended any other way, though.
I was sort of surprised that I didn’t hate the epilogue. I really hated the epilogue in the last Harry Potter book; it felt like a fanfic where everything turns out just! fine! and look! at all! the extra! good! stuff! The epilogue here seems similar at first blush–Katniss and Peeta living together in District 12 with babies!–but it doesn’t carry a happy ending feel. It still feels like Katniss is broken and the only real hope is in future generations who won’t know the devastation that she did. That’s a very removed sort of happy ending! And while I’ve heard some cry foul over Katniss settling down, losing her fire (or something like that), and having children, I think that change in her character–that she’s not out crusading in another district like Gale, that she finally acquiesced to having children–shows that her experiences have changed her, and illustrates that tenuous hope for the future. It felt like it fit.
I’ve seen a short-hand summary of all fantasy novels that goes something like “good triumphs over evil, but not without cost.” In general I think that’s actually pretty accurate, but with the Hunger Games trilogy more than any other book, I feel like the good has never been so tenuously surviving and the evil so insidious and the cost so high. There’s no clear-cut good and evil here, but there is the idea that sometimes fighting evil requires too much darkness of yourself and that the ends don’t justify the means–and this is the idea that I think triumphs in Mockingjay. Our humanity is the only thing that keeps us from being monsters, but holding on to that humanity can seem hopeless, and it may feel like we’ve lost it already. But by propping each other up even when we feel we’re broken, by recognizing the humanity of even our enemies, by not answering violence with violence, we can maybe repair ourselves and our world. Maybe.
Where do we go from here
The Huffington Post featured six children’s books to read after finishing Mockingjay, and that list has been met with widespread derision because it includes–no, seriously–Amelia Bedelia. Is Peter Steinberg high? This list must have started out as his favorite children’s books and then an editor was like, “Hey, Mockingjay, that’s a kid’s book, right? That’s a big deal now, so let’s tie your list in with that!” because there’s no way that someone who’s just finished Mockingjay and is asking for more is going to be satisfied with an Amelia Bedelia book.
In response, a number of bloggers have made lists of their own, and you’re going to be much happier with their suggestions. Here’s a selection:
Hopkins had done high school visits in the area before and they’d gone well, but when a middle school librarian saw Hopkins would be at Teen Lit Fest, she went to some parents and then all of them went to the superintendent to ask that Hopkins be uninvited. The superintendent, Guy Sconzo, hadn’t read any of her books but agreed to remove her from the program. When other area librarians wrote to him in protest, he responded that he’d relied on the librarian’s judgement and that there were plenty of other authors they could invite–too many to ever have them all! Hopkins responded to this on her blog:
I am not just another author. I’m an author who is a voice for a generation that faces real problems every day. An author who tries to dissect those problems, look for reasons, suggest solutions, show outcomes to choices through characters who walk off the page. I’m an author who cares about her readership in a very real way. I am thoughtful, respectful of my readers, and not afraid to tell the truth.
That is what censors fear. The truth. Mr. Sconzo doesn’t “want to jeopardize any possible negative reaction [sic] with what has been to date completely positive for literally all concerned.” (I always wonder about school administrators who can’t write a sentence correctly.) The truth may not always be pretty, but it is positive. What’s negative is hiding truth in a dark closet, pretending it doesn’t exist. And worse, manipulating people with lies.
She then asks that people in the Houston area not attend the festival and that people everywhere who oppose this censorship email the superintendent.
But the other authors involved with Teen Lit Fest are going a step further. Melissa de la Cruz wrote a blog post yesterday about growing up in a dictator-controlled country that banned, among other media, Japanese anime. She writes that “[w]hen I moved to America, I was happy to discover that you could watch ANYTHING here. Censorship was NOT a way of life. The freedom was dizzying.” And then she gets to the heart of censorship of material for young people:
But I want every kid to be able to decide whether they want to read Ellen’s books or my books, or anyone’s books. Kids should be able to choose. (Parents can choose not to let their kids read something, and that’s fine. They can also choose not to let their kids go hear someone speak, but you can’t ruin it for other people’s kids whose parents decided THEY can hear a speaker or read a book.)
I didn’t get to choose when I was nine years old, and I remember being INCREDIBLY UPSET. In fact, the absence of those Japanese cartoons is something I have been MOURNING for twenty-years now. I really missed it when they took it away, and I was HORRIFIED to find out that SOMEONE ELSE decided WHAT I could watch. (Someone who was not my parents.) It really disturbed me. It CONTINUES to disturb me.
So de la Cruz has withdrawn from Teen Lit Fest, and Pete Hautman has, too. In his blog post, he recounts how he’s twice been asked to speak at a library and then had that invitation rescinded after his writing was deemed “inappropriate.” At the time he didn’t make a big deal about it, but now he sees that as a mistake, so he’s withdrawing from Teen Lit Fest to stand against censorship. He also says that Tara Lynn Childs and Matt de la Peña have withdrawn as well.
I think what makes me angriest about this whole situation is that this censorship was begun by a librarian. I know that school librarians walk a narrower line, but all librarians everywhere are supposed to be the defenders of intellectual freedom and the champions of a young person’s right to read. Parents may decide what their own children read, but they shouldn’t be able to decide what everyone’s children read–and libraries should be providing more opportunities, not fewer.
I’m glad that other authors involved in this event are standing in solidarity with Ellen Hopkins and taking a stand against censorship. Even if one librarian in Texas is determined to “protect” teens from “inappropriate” material (material that’s won awards and propelled Hopkins’s books to the New York Times Bestseller list!), there are plenty of other people in Texas and online who value choice and–as Julie Halpern wrote when one of her books was challenged–respect young readers.
Update: I should be clear that while I’m thrilled to see other authors standing in solidarity with Ellen Hopkins, I’m also sad that if the superintendent doesn’t change his mind, Houston-area teens are going to be denied a chance to meet the creators of the books they love. It bites that they’re the ones who are caught in the middle.
Update 2: Ellen Hopkins has written a follow-up blog post in which she acknowledges that authors withdrawing from the Teen Lit Fest is unfair to teens and librarians in Humble, but emphasizes that this is about censorship and the freedom of ideas.
I really feel bad for the students in this situation. All they wanted was the chance to meet some great writers (trust me, Ellen Hopkins, Melissa de la Cruz, Pete Hautman, and Matt de la Pena are great writers) and maybe get some signed books. Instead, they’re missing out because a few adults think they know better.
That’s the problem with censorship, especially the kind that goes along with books. It’s usually couched in a fog of protection. As if keeping you from certain content is for your own good, and it’s really better this way. I’m especially appalled when this is applied to teen readers. Not only are teens generally way smarter and more mature and more experienced than we think, teen readers in particular are among the smartest people I know. It’s just insulting for adults in power (or those seeking power) to try to carry out their agenda waving the Because-They’re-Children and Because-We-Know-Better banners.
I couldn’t just sit by and be a part of this, and neither should you.
I somehow fell behind on Internet stuff and have been working over the last couple weeks to catch up. I still have email to take care of and my Instapaper queue is a complete disaster, but I’ve finally caught up on all of my Google Reader feeds. Here are some things from the last month or two I found especially interesting.
“Life & Death in YA Lit” at Jacket Whys uses Wordle word clouds to pull out common terms in YA book titles and compare them to the common words in summaries of and subject headings those books. Covers featured “dead,” “dark,” “love,” and “life,” but the summaries and subject headings mostly focused on high school with dashes of friendships, certain ages, interpersonal relations, love, family, and the supernatural.
I wasn’t able to make it to ALA Annual this year, but the blog coverage of the conference was pretty thorough. I was especially bummed to not be able to attend the Printz Award ceremony since Libba Bray won with GOING BOVINE, which she talked about during the Genre Galaxy preconference at last year’s annual. But Stephanie Kuenn covered the Printz speeches for the YALSA blog, so I was at least able to watch Libba’s speech and oh man was it awesome:
Monica of Educating Alicetalked about summer reading as leisure reading while also making the case for quality literature during the school year. It was great to see an acknowledgement that all reading is reading, but that experts can still guide kids to well-written books–and teach them how to tell good literature from not-so-good.
I also really loved Sarah’s GreenBeanTeenQueen post about what characters in YA books read. She was disappointed that in so many books, characters who mention how much they like reading or how important it is always seem to be reading “the classics” and not great YA books. And while she admits that there’s nothing wrong with teens reading grownup books, I totally agree that having literate characters not reading YA novels misses a great internal advertising opportunity. Great YA lit should be recognized as great and not always put in second place after what grownups read.
I was originally planning to find a bookstore that would be doing a midnight release and camping out to get a copy, but then I got word that Suzanne Collins would be visiting a bookstore not too far from me to do a reading and stamping (rather than a signing, due to a previous injury) a few days after the book comes out, so as much as it’s going to kill me to wait all day Tuesday, all day Wednesday, all day Thursday, and all morning Friday that week (I might have to just stay off the Internet entirely!), I’m going to wait. It’ll be worth it!
Dystopian stories are my favorite, so I’m predisposed to like the Hunger Games trilogy anyway, but I think Collins does a great job of building a whole and complete fantasy world that’s internally consistent in its history, politics, and mythology. I also love the way she gives you just enough of that history to hint at a bigger picture we don’t know yet. And it’s not just in the Hunger Games books that she does this: the Underland Chronicles, which follow the adventures of Gregor the Overlander and are for younger readers, have that same kind of detailed world-building that makes for a successful sci-fi or fantasy book. Anyway, while I’m really on Team Katniss more than I am Team Peeta or Team Gale, I’m really excited to see more of the world Collins has created in MOCKINGJAY and to finally get some answers about District 13!
Last week children’s book author KP Bath was sentenced to six years in jail for possessing child pornography. This brings up questions of what librarians should do with his books if they’re held by the library. Should they be removed from the collection? Should they be booktalked and suggested? Should they be featured in displays? In South Carolina where the book won the 2007-2008 Junior Book Award, should the book be stricken from the award list?
Bath was originally arrested in April 2009. At the time I was taking both a seminar on intellectual freedom and Materials for Youth, and I brought up his arrest in both classes to gauge my fellow students’ reactions. While my seminar classmates were all vociferous in their defense of the book (but not the author), I was surprised by how many of my classmates in Materials for Youth would have removed the book from their libraries’ collections, even if they hadn’t read the books themselves. I think that were KP Bath an author for adults, even more cautious librarians would be less likely to pull his works; it’s providing his books to children, the very group he was exploiting, that concerns us.
At the time I hadn’t read any of KP Bath’s books, but by the end of the semester had read both THE SECRET OF CASTLE CANT and ESCAPE FROM CASTLE CANT, the first two books in a trilogy that will now probably never see completion. I thought they were mediocre fantasy novels that started with an interesting world but fell short in their narration style and details. But aside from a few notes about how insufferable adults are (which you’ll find in many books for older children and young adults), there was nothing in the books that seemed unusual or uncomfortable, much less exploitative. So, wearing my librarian hat and separating the author from his work, I concluded that it would violate the Freedom to Read Statement were we to remove the book from our library shelves.
But this also illustrated to me the occasional separation that occurs between my professional ethics and my personal ethics. While I’m not always great at it, it’s important to me to spend my consumer dollars wisely since it’s the only vote I get in the behavior of corporations and the business world in general. And I definitely don’t want to financially support someone who exploits children–especially someone so downright skeezy as Bath. He wrote in one of his chats, “I’m glad there are molesters out there,” and “I wish a 9 yr old was doing that to me. This from a man who’s writing books for 9-year-olds.” While he was enjoying (and trading) videos and images “depicting sadistic conduct, rape, sodomy and bestiality,” he was also volunteering at the Beverly Cleary Children’s Library in Portland. He was volunteering at the local children’s library. It chills my blood to read that sentence. Knowing what I know about Bath, there’s no way I could spend my money on his books, recommend (rather than suggest) his books to any children I know, or in any way not oppose him.
But those are my personal values. My professional values demand that I treat his books as I would have before his arrest and conviction. Normally I feel like my own values and my profession’s values are a good match, but I really struggle with this case. I know that as much as we want it to be or might claim it is, our collection development isn’t objective. I want social justice to be a part of librarianship. But intellectual freedom is at the core of librarianship and is the defense for some controversial things that happen in youth librarianship. If we start making compromises, how can we continue to defend controversial books being on our shelves? If we make exceptions and remove KP Bath’s books from our collections, then how do we retain the works of other felons or of anyone–atheists, gay people–whom someone in our library’s community might think immoral?
But can I really set aside my personal values in favor of my professional ones and be okay with myself? I certainly expect it of any librarians who personally think that (for example) people in the queer community are on the path to hell–I’d still expect them to collect books by LGBTQIA authors. Is the reason I think this is different because the law and a majority of people in our society agree that pedophilia is wrong whereas (in most states at least) homosexuality isn’t a crime?
I struggled with this conflict of values last spring and now that Bath has been sentenced, I’m thinking about it again. Professionally the right thing to do is to treat his books no differently, but personally, I’m torn. Intellectual freedom is important to me, but so is supporting good in the world and opposing evil. I feel okay keeping Bath’s books in a collection and with giving them to patrons who ask for them directly. But can I, with a clean conscience, add Bath’s books to a booklist? Can I booktalk them? I think I’ll probably do so–and feel good about it at work but feel guilty about it at home.
This post has been edited to correct the ages of the characters in the first Harry Potter book. They were 11 when the books began, not 12.
A couple of weeks ago Miley Cyrus was named as the lead in the movie adaptation of Lisa McMann’s thriller WAKE. Discussion on the listservs was mixed: it sounds like there are plenty of people who aren’t Miley fans, but a few people pointed out that getting someone with that kind of star power would get more people to see the movie, which is great.
But what I really like about this casting decision is that Miley is 17, just like Janie, the protagonist of WAKE. It seems like a lot of the time teens in movies and television are played by twentysomethings, or 12-year-old characters become 16 year olds when a book gets adapted for television. Using movie release dates and actors’ birth years from IMDb to find some examples:
In Glee, the characters are in high school, but the actors playing those characters range in age from 19 (Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt) to 27 (Cory Monteith and Mark Salling, who play Finn and Puck respectively)–just four years younger than Matthew Morrison, who plays their teacher and coach.
And those are just a few examples. A movie adaptation of Ally Carter’s HEIST SOCIETY is in development now with a scheduled 2012 release date. In April, Carter wrote a blog post about the characters being aged up from their teens to their early twenties for the movie adaptation. Specifically, she wrote about why she was okay with that change. Her reasons ranged from simple ones (money, a bigger audience) to more complex ones (Kat will have been gone longer and will be rustier, an older character being seen as a little girl hurts her more), but Angie Manfredi disagreed on Twitter. In a short conversation (12345) we touched on how this is disrespectful to teens because it tells them that they, as teens, aren’t interesting, and it means that movies teens watch that are supposedly directed at them don’t portray characters who are like them. Just as teens deserve literature that reflects their lives, the movie adaptations of that literature should reflect teens and their stories and abilities and fears and triumphs.
There are some movies that get it right. Weirdly enough, the Twilight actors are pretty close in age to their characters (Kristen Stewart was 18 when the first movie came out and Taylor Lautner was 17 when New Moon was released; Robert Pattinson was 22 in the first movie instead of 17, but I guess you can argue you want an older actor to play a character who’s actually a few hundred years old?).
But I think the Harry Potter franchise is the best example: Harry and Ron and Hermione were all 11 in the first book; Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson were all 12 when the first movie was released (so they were probably 11 when the movie was filmed). They’ve gotten a little older now (Radcliffe will be 22 when the final movie with an 18-year-old Harry comes out), but that’s just because you can’t crank out eight movies of that magnitude in seven years. Through that series (both the seven books and the eight movies) we get to see Harry mature from a kid to an adult, something that we wouldn’t have seen in a movie that started out with an older character or an older actor. Teens deserve depictions of teen characters that show that kind of reflection of who they are and who they’re becoming–both in literature and movies based on that literature.
One of the characteristics of my MLS program that I enjoyed the most was the diversity in age and experience among my classmates. There were people like me who were (mostly) fresh out of college and whose library experience was fairly limited, but because of the recent changes in Indiana library certification (summary here), some of my classmates were department heads or branch managers or even library directors who had been in their positions for decades without an MLS and who were now in school to get their degrees so they could keep their jobs. This led to a wide range in opinions and experiences in the classroom, which made for great class discussions. It also meant that I got to hear a lot of stories about how things were done in different libraries, many of which had very different policies and procedures.
One of the most disturbing stories I heard during my degree was about a challenge to a book in the teen collection at a particular library. Just for storytelling purposes, I’ll call it the Anonymous Public Library (APL). Because of the worldview of a few board members, APL takes a very active role in deciding what’s appropriate for the library collection. They do not purchase or accept donations of R-rated movies, even if the movie has won awards or broken box office records. The board members who designed and uphold this policy think that APL shouldn’t carry “inappropriate” material like this because children might check it out. Staff members have tried to suggest having adult library cards and children’s cards and not allowing children to check out videos, freeing adults to watch movies for grownups, but the board members remain resolute.
Because of the generally conservative culture at APL, the teen section also comes under a lot of scrutiny. It does serve 6th-12th graders which is admittedly a very wide range, but I’m firmly of the opinion that if a parent is concerned about what his or her child is reading, that parent should be involved in the child’s selection of reading materials–in other words, it’s not the library’s job to be the parent. But APL’s policies differ from my personal philosophy, so no books in the teen collection may contain the F-word, and the board expects the teen librarian to read every book before she purchases it to make sure the forbidden word doesn’t appear and to screen for other “inappropriate” material and themes. If APL were a tiny public library with a tiny budget and few purchases, this might be feasible, but because of APL’s size and budget, there’s no way the teen librarian can possibly read everything before she orders it.
So one of the stories about APL that was told in class was this: a seventh grader checked out Julie Halpern’s GET WELL SOON, thinking from the cover that it would be like a Jerry Spinelli book. In fact, the story is about a girl named Anna Bloom whose parents send her to a residential mental health facility (a “loony bin,” as Anna puts it) to treat her depression. The young APL patron was surprised to find a number of swear words on the first page and showed the book to her mom. Her mom was very angry and brought the book back to the library to request its removal.
In most public libraries, a librarian would listen to the parent, try to assess and reflect back why the parent was upset, and to show the parent that her concerns were important to the library. Librarians usually also try to explain the value of diversity in the collection and the importance of helping kids select their reading material if subject matter is a concern. Then if the parent still wants to challenge the book, the librarian would have the parent fill out a request for reconsideration form. Depending on library policy, a group of librarians, managers, and maybe board members or members of the public would meet, review the book, and make a decision.
At APL, the book was immediately taken to the director, who looked at the first page, decided the book was inappropriate, and had it removed it from the collection. The book itself didn’t even go to the pile of general library discards that’s sold by the Friends of the Library as a fundraiser: it went into the dumpster. This all happened within an hour of the mom’s initial challenge to the book.
And the craziest part of this story is that while this was happening, the teen librarian was on vacation, and when she returned, no one from management told her it’d happened. In her absence, the book just disappeared. She only found out later when the checkout clerk who was the mom’s first point of contact told the teen librarian, which she wasn’t supposed to have done.
Obviously this is a really extreme version of how a challenge process can work in a public library, and it is, of course, up to the community to decide how their library is run. It just makes me sad that the board members who support these policies have such a limited view of intellectual freedom in general and, more specifically, of kids’ ability to choose their own reading material and to stop when they find something they don’t think is right for them, and it makes me sad that the librarians at APL can’t do more to call this out for the censorship that it is.
So it was with great joy that I read the news that the Fon Du Lac School District in Wisconsin had chosen to keep GET WELL SOON on the shelf at Theisen Middle School. Challenges in a school library are particularly tricky because unlike public libraries, the school is acting in loco parentis, so challenges are more likely to be successful. Another school district in the area had opted to put a sticker on another book (not GET WELL SOON) deemed inappropriate for middle schoolers and to require parental permission for students to check it out, so FDLSD’s decision is especially heartening. During the hearings, the media specialist defended the library’s diverse collection and said that if a student checked out GET WELL SOON and was uncomfortable reading it that she would help that student find something more appropriate. This is exactly the right way to handle challenges like this and I’m so pleased with how things turned out.
If a challenge doesn’t get much media attention, the author often never hears about the challenge or the outcome. But in this case, Julie Halpern saw an article about the decision (and noted that no one’d called her) and wrote a blog post about how the challenge affected her writing of the sequel and the role respect plays in reading, writing, and allowing kids to pick their own reading material.