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.
Argh, I read all of these books ages ago and kept meaning to review them and then didn’t. I’m going to keep these pretty short so I can make myself write them and then have this be done and stop feeling guilty.
Spoiled by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
Poppy, June 2011. 368pp. 9780316098250.
After sixteen-year-old Molly’s mother dies, she discovers that her father is none other than movie star Brick Berlin and goes to live with him in LA, leaving behind her friends and a maybe-boyfriend in Indiana. But Brick already has a daughter, Brooke, an aspiring actress herself, who doesn’t want to share her father’s already limited attention and affection with a Midwestern interloper. Spoiled rises above other rich-and-catty books with its spot-on humor, especially in its observations of the extreme consumerism and self-obsession of Hollywood and its inhabitants. But it’s not all hot yoga and cold shoulders in this story: characters have emotional depth, reasons for their behavior. They change over the course of the story and develop real connections with one another. Most of the major conflicts are wound down by the end, but the last few pages set up a sequel. 3/5. Book source: sent by publisher
Destefano, Lauren. Wither.
Simon & Schuster, March 2011. 368pp. 9781442409057.
Rhine lives in a future where genetic experimentation gone wrong has limited the lifespan of men to 25 years and women to 20. Women are kidnapped and forced into polygamous marriages to ensure the propagation of the human race. Dystopian stories were my favorite before they became the next big thing in YA and while I’m still finding titles I like, this wasn’t really one of them. It’s not a dystopian tale so much as a kidnapping story set in a dystopian-lite setting. I’m not even really sure that it makes sense that young adults would be so concerned about making babies in such a situation: I think we’d all be more likely to be living hard until we died young. I was also disappointed that so much menace and threat in Wither came from the disturbing ideas of what might be going on in the basement of the mansion where Rhine is imprisoned, but none of that was really resolved and seemed completely left behind at the end. Similarly, the Housemaster was really frightening and it felt like a lot of time was invested in making him scary–but then he’s completely abandoned at the end of the book. Maybe I went into this book with expectations too high, but I felt left down when I finished it. 2/5. Book source: my library
Lo, Malinda. Huntress.
Little, Brown, April 2011. 384pp. 9780316040075.
The world is out of balance, and only Taisin and Kaede, seventeen-year-old girls who have been training to be sages (one with great success, the other entirely without), can mend things by traveling to the far reaches of the land and crossing over into the Fairy Kingdom in this tale inspired by Chinese influences. Huntress is very atmosphere-driven: the eerily oppressive feeling of the absent sun, the endless dripping of the rain, and the isolation and numbing quiet of the cold are all companions in their own right in the girls’ quest. The relationship between the girls grows in fits and starts, entirely entwined in the progress of their quest, and the alternating mix of discovery, reluctance, and passion is better developed than many. Unfortunately, the final task the girls must complete felt rushed and tacked-on, emerging and being resolved far after the major climax has passed. In spite of that, Lo still spins a lovely tale set in a rich world. 4/5. Book source: requested from publisher
Roth, Veronica. Divergent.
Katherine Tegen Books, May 2011. 496pp. 9780062024022.
In a future Chicago, everyone is in one of five factions that live their entire lives based around a single virtue (candor, selflessness, learning, bravery, friendliness). For the first sixteen years, you live and work in the faction to which you were born, but when you become sixteen, you choose the faction where you want to spend the rest of your life. Beatrice has been raised in Abnegation, but when her time to choose arrives, she surprises everyone by turning Dauntless. She must face a brutal initiation and keep buried a potentially terrible secret about herself she has recently discovered. I think this was another one where I went in with too-high expectations, and while I wasn’t disappointed, Divergent didn’t blow my mind the way I was hoping it might. Am I getting jaded with all of the dystopian titles out now? I hope not because I do love a well-constructed dystopia. Anyway, this one has the brutality of the Hunger Games, if that’s what your readers are looking for, and while Beatrice/Tris was way too slow to catch on to the feelings the initiation leader has for her, their romance at least seemed grounded in respect for one another rather than just falling in love at first sight or for no particular reason or because of fate. Tris isn’t the Chosen One the way you see in a lot of high-action YA fantasy and sci-fi, but is, rather, one of many, and I’ll probably read future books to see how that develops. This is certainly a solid story, but it didn’t wow me the way I wanted it to. 3/5. Book source: my library
Ruiz Zafon, Carlos. The Midnight Palace.
Little, Brown, May 2011. 304pp. 9780316044738.
Twins Ben and Sheere have been separated since they were infants, but they’re thrown together when an unknown evil enters their lives, bent on exacting its revenge. Together with Ben’s close group of friends from the orphanage in which he was raised, they must find out what is chasing them and why–and how to defeat it. This is another book that absolutely rocks atmosphere. Check this out:
The shadow of the storm heralded the arrival of midnight as a vast leaden blanket spread over Calcutta, lighting up with every burst of electric fury it unleashed. The fury of the north wind swept the mist from the Hooghly River, revealing the ravaged skeleton of the metal bridge. (227)
The book is just full of sentences and passages that make you feel the sweltering heat; make you see the packed, dirty streets; that make the place a very real thing. And there were some genuinely scary parts to this story. But while The Midnight Palace didn’t have the glaring plot holes of Ruiz Zafon’s Prince of Mist, the motivations of the villain, once they were revealed, still didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Fantastic setting, weak story. 3/5. Book source: requested from publisher
Over the last two months, I’ve been working on a guest post for In the Library with the Lead Pipe about YA lit. It’s been a great experience (I’ve never had an editor before!), and I’m really proud of the final version of the article, “Are You Reading YA Lit? You Should Be.” Here’s the intro:
I’m a young adult librarian, but I didn’t read young adult lit when I was a teen myself. I was a precocious reader and desperate to be treated like a grown-up, so I read books for grown-ups because anything else was just too puerile for someone as obviously mature and sophisticated as I. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties, working on my MLS and realizing that I wanted to work with teens, that I discovered there was a huge, glorious world of excellent YA lit that I had completely missed. Now it’s almost all I read.
Outside of YA circles, I sometimes find myself having to justify my tastes to others. Yes, a lot of why I read YA lit is because I work with teens. But even if I were to switch careers, I would continue reading YA lit because it’s good. That’s not to say adult lit isn’t, of course, but YA lit has a freshness that I really enjoy, and it rarely gets bogged down in its own self-importance. YA lit is also mostly free of the melancholy, nostalgia, and yearning for the innocent days of childhood that I find so tedious in adult literary fiction.
I think the reason some grown-ups look down their noses at YA lit is because they haven’t read any of it recently, so they don’t know how good it’s gotten—or how different it is from what they might imagine it to be. While there are still books that deal with Big Issues, the “problem novel” of the ’70s and ’80s has been eclipsed by more slice-of-life contemporary fiction, romances, fantasies, mysteries, sci-fi stories, and genre-blending tales that defy categorization. For as much attention as the Twilight series has gotten, it’s certainly not all that’s out there.
I talk about what YA lit is and isn’t, how YA lit is similar to and different from adult lit, recent trends in YA lit, and grown-ups reading YA lit (plus some suggestions for adults who want to give YA lit a try). It’s kind of long, but I hope you’ll read it!
I want to say again how awesome it was to work with Lead Piper Brett Bonfield and my guest editors Candice Mack and Nancy Hinkel. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to write this piece with their insightful input and to be an ambassador for YA lit to a wider audience.
Last week my library did a Harry Potter movie marathon to get our patrons ready for the final film. It gave me some time to reflect on the books, the movies, and the cultural phenomenon that is Harry Potter, which all culminated in me feeling very conflicted as I drove to the midnight showing of the final movie. I almost didn’t want to go, as if in some way not seeing the final movie would mean it wasn’t all over. But I did go (with one of our children’s librarians and her husband), and I laughed and cried a lot and then after we went our separate ways, I sat in my car waiting for the traffic to thin out and then drove home along completely empty roads feeling thoughtful and sad and full of feelings I don’t have words for.
I’m certainly not a superfan–I have made no costume, have attended no cons, have written no fanfic–but I can’t deny that Harry Potter has been a part of my life, first as just a reader and viewer and now as a librarian. So, inspired by the bloggers at the Hub as they bid farewell to Harry, here are musings on my personal journey with Harry Potter and a few thoughts on the impact the series has had. (more…)
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?
Attack of the Vampire Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales
Author: David Lubar
Publisher: Starscape (Tor)
Publication date: 24 May 2011
Review book source: ARC sent by the publisher
Summary From the publisher: A boy steals a ticket to an amusement park and gets the ride of a lifetime–literally. The first day of middle school turns into a free-for-all when the gym teacher offers a “get-out-of-gym-free” card. Sick of his sister’s vampire wannabe friends, a kid decides to teach them a lesson at their next party. But the tables are turned when some surprise guests show up. [...] David Lubar is back with thirty more warped and creepy tales for fans of his bestselling Weenies story collections [...]
Lubar’s stories draw on horror story and urban legend staples (ghosts, creepy abandoned houses, skeletons) as well as elements from kids’ day to day lives (school, sports, video games, lame older siblings) and the truly bizarre (mimes turned vampires, ants that become what they eat–and then hunger for more, and the perils of stealing cable from a witch). These elements are blended together with a healthy helping of humor to create a collection that will alternately creep you out and leave you chuckling.
The mix of horror and humor will keep kids reading, and the length of the stories (some as short as three pages) will reward reluctant readers. The shorter stories would also make great material for book talks to tweens, so take this with you when you visit schools to promote summer reading!
With many of the stories, some of the horror is in the initial cold chill when you realize what’s happening, but a lot of it also comes from contemplating what happens to the characters after the story is over. Many of the stories also end in such a way that you could ask, “What happens next?” to get kids telling some great stories of their own.
One of the delightfully silly passages I enjoyed comes from the setup for one of the fractured fairy tales in the collection:
A while ago–however long it actually was doesn’t really matter–a poor couple lived in a shack in the woods. They had enough money for a television, but they couldn’t afford cable. So they settled for watching the few shows they could catch on broadcast. When the wife learned she was going to have a baby, she got restless.
“Look there,” she said, pointing to the high walls that surrounded the witch’s home not far from their shack. “She has satellite TV. And all we have is broadcast.”
“I’ll fix that,” her husband said. He waited until night, then took his tools and sneaked over to the satellite dish. He spliced a second cable into the line and ran it to his shack.
“Now we can watch everything,” the husband said.
“Isn’t that stealing?” the wife asked.
“We’re not hurting anyone,” the husband said.
And so they settled down on the couch and watched the wonderful abundance of available satellite programming until their daughter was born.
Such fractured fairy tales, new urban legends, and stories about strange and freaky things that no one would ever believe happened if you told them are mixed in with the traditional horror or campfire stories. Some are scary, some capture your imagination and stick with you, and some serve as cautionary tales of the dangers of avarice, revenge, and too much reality television. With all of them, I like the possibilities and twists that Lubar sees when he looks at the world–and as a bonus, a section is included at the end of the book wherein Lubar explains his inspiration for each story, which I appreciated and suspect young readers would as well.
Other little things I enjoyed about this collection: there is a Gretchen in this book! There is a story (“Gee! Ography”) that is entirely built on geography puns! And there are a handful of times when the kids in the stories do something to find information–everything from simple Internet searches to grabbing an encyclopedia because it’s closer than the computer to months of research at the library on smells culminating in the creation of an anti-stink formula. And for the most part, the kids who know how to do research well succeed and the kids who don’t get eaten or meet some other hideous fate. How’s that for library propaganda?
I think my favorite story was “Chirp” (about a boy who can briefly turn into a bird when he says “chirp”) because I didn’t see the twist ending coming at all, but the one that really stuck with me, that really horrified me, was “Family Time,” in which a kid and his family gather for a game and he finds himself completely at a loss as to what the rules are or even the correct vocabulary to learn, despite his family’s insistence that they’ve played before and he must know. To me, that sounded too much like the dementia that I fear will be my fate in old age: I’ll have no idea what’s going on and no way to find out, despite everyone telling me things are totally normal. That’s terrifying.
Lubar’s latest Weenies book is warped and creepy, yes, but also also funny. While not every story is a total slam-dunk (or a home run or whatever other sports analogy you’d like), those that fall flat only seem so because they’re surrounded by clever stories that make you wonder “what if?” or “what next?” A great collection for your tweens. 4/5.
The Time-Traveling Fashionista
Author: Bianca Turetsky
Publisher: Poppy (an imprint of Little, Brown)
Publication date: 5 April 2011
Review book source: I requested a copy from the publisher
Louise Lambert loves vintage clothing, even if none of her friends and family understand her passion. Since the seventh grade semiformal is just around the corner, the arrival of an invitation to the Traveling Fashionista Vintage Sale is especially exciting. But when Louise visits the strange shop run by its strange owners and tries on a gorgeous dress–who cares if it smells a little of seawater?–she suddenly finds herself thrown into the past, inhabiting the body of Miss Baxter, a famous movie star, who has embarked on a luxury cruise ship on its way to New York from England.
While not a technically excellent book, this story–especially with its illustrations–will appeal to middle grade readers with a love of fashion and a taste for the dramatic.
The plot and the writing of The Time-Traveling Fashionista aren’t super-strong, to be totally honest. Louise’s realization that she’s on the Titanic comes surprisingly late in the book, and her obliviousness and disinclination to ask questions once she finds herself in the past seemed difficult to believe. While her attempts to thwart history were admirable, the obstacles that are placed in her path–especially the villainous ship’s doctor–seem one-dimensional and just thrown in to create roadblocks for Louise. The actual writing itself could also have used some more editing:
“Can I watch TV?” Louise asked, eyeing the room for a television set or a flat-screen.
“What’s Tavee??” Anna repeated, confused.
“Right, never mind,” Louise said with a sigh, remembering what era she was in. (p. 92)
The dialogue also felt stilted at times, more written than spoken:
“But it was only a dress,” Louise began sobbing. “How was I supposed to know that all of this would happen? That I would end up stuck on a sinking ship! Does this concern you at all?”
“Only a dress,” Glenda mimicked, powdering her face with the poofy white powder puff. (p. 200)
The short chapters do help keep the story moving, though, which may especially encourage less-than-voracious readers.
The most disappointing part of this book for me, though, came at the end. Once she returns to the present time, Louise does research (just Internet searches, of course) to find out what happened to the people whom she met on the ship to discover their fates. Yet despite this “real world” follow-up, there’s no author’s note that explains what parts of Louise’s experiences on the Titanic were real and which were fictionalized. Especially since the romance between Miss Baxter’s maid, Anna, and a crew member didn’t actually happen, but are confirmed as “real” by Louise in the book, this lack of historical disambiguation seems disappointing and maybe a little dangerous.
But it’s not the writing or the historical accuracy that’s going to bring readers to this book: it’s the description of each character’s clothing and the twenty-two gorgeous–really, gorgeous–color sketches of different dresses and ensembles that Louise encounters in her present-day life and in her trip to the past. These really make the book stand out and bring to life the parts of the adventure that appeal to Louise herself. The cover is also really appealing and hints at the illustrations within.
In short, The Time-Traveling Fashionista is something of a fluffy addition to the recent historical-fiction-via-time-travel trend, but with a unique addition of especially lovely fashion illustrations that make the book stand out. 3/5.
A couple of days ago I had a really frustrating interaction with someone. Part of the frustration came from me not being in a position to debate the merit of this person’s statement, but part of it also comes from her opinion being a widely held one among people who don’t actually work with kids and books that I suspect other librarians fight on a regular basis as well.
Let me give you some context. Our local middle school has a Battle of the Books in which each English class competes against each other. Students are given a list of about 100 “recommended reading” books and are encouraged to read books from the list throughout the year. Then, as the school year is winding down, each class picks who will be on their official team, and those teams compete against one another in a trivia contest that draws facts from the books on the list. Whichever team answers the most questions correctly wins.
So I was having a conversation with this woman about middle schoolers in our community, and she said that she just loves the Battle of the Books because it gets kids reading “good books instead of that Clique stuff1,” and at that point it was hard for me to not start a fight, because–and I think she’d find this shocking and appalling, and might think I’m a Bad Librarian because of it–I’d much rather see a middle school kid reading a Clique book or Twilight or a graphic novel for fun than see the same student struggling through a Classic Novel of Great Merit, hating every minute of it.
Allow me a few parameters and caveats. This isn’t really about what books get assigned in English classes. I’d really like to see more contemporary titles with similar themes or literary devices as the “classics,” but I understand that fitting things into the curriculum (or changing the curriculum) and developing lesson plans from scratch can be hard, and schools are under a lot more pressure to provide books that strengthen kids’ moral fiber or introduce them to our “universal” culture or indoctrinate students into the “right” kind of thinking (or at least don’t lead them astray with the “wrong” kind of thinking) or whatever.
Furthermore, I don’t have a problem with the Battle of the Books program itself. I mean, libraries all around the country do something similar, and it can be a cool way to get kids excited about reading and about books. That’s great! We need to find more ways of doing that. An essential component of lifelong reading is getting kids to like reading. (I suppose you could argue that more is not always better, as British authors are doing right now around the whole “kids should be reading 50 books a year” thing, but again, there’s a difference between what schools do and what public libraries do.) And the Battle of the Books book list isn’t just classics: the lists also include Newbery winners, other award winners, bestsellers, and even actually popular books (like The Lightning Thief and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). But it is definitely a list that is intended to highlight Good Literature and exclude “trashy” reads.
So really, it’s not the Battle of the Books or the books themselves, and you can, of course, make an argument for having classics in the YA section. It’s not the classics that I have a problem with–it’s giving kids choice. What’s really killing me here is this woman’s assumption that classics = good and popular books = bad, regardless of any other circumstances surrounding the situation. Later in the conversation, the recent smallish expansion of our teen area came up, and this woman responded, “Oh, good! They really need so much room to study,” completely missing the point that the books in our teen area are mostly fiction and that the teen area has also been evolving to become more of a space for hanging out than a space for tutoring. It was just really clear to me that she sees libraries as books + studying and that kids should only be reading Books of Great Merit.
Kids will have assigned reading in school, and that’s fine. But they also need to have choice in what they read, and those choice needs to not be policed for literary merit. That kids’ recreational reading choices are scrutinized by adults who think they know better is infuriating. No one lectures adults on how they should stop reading Dan Brown or put down the latest John Grisham book and instead pick up War and Peace or Ulysses or something. No one’s going to look at an adult who comes home from a long day at work and plops down to watch American Idol and say, “Are you really watching that trash again? You should be watching a documentary,” but man, kids go to class for seven or eight hours a day, have sports practice or clubs or music lessons or part-time jobs after that, go home and do their homework–and then are expected to read books that will make them better people instead of books that they want to read? You’ve got to be kidding me.
LizB–once again–has it right: the 50 books every child should read starts with #1: a book of their choice, continues with #2: a book of their choice, and keeps going that way. That’s how you build lifelong readers, how you get people to for fun–you let them read things that interest them. And as the British authors who stood up for kids and their reading pointed out, requiring kids to read 50 books a year while simultaneously cutting library funding and closing libraries is also crap. Kids need choice in their reading materials, and they need libraries to have that choice.
1The Clique books seem to be the go-to “these books are bad” books in my community–I’m not really sure why it’s The Clique in particular and not Gossip Girl or Pretty Little Liars or The A-List or any other of the many series like that in my library that are very popular.
I Am J
Author: Cris Beam
Publisher: Little, Brown
Publication date: 1 March 2011
Review book source: review copy I requested from the publisher
Summary From the publisher: J always felt different. He was certain that eventually everyone would understand who he really was: a boy mistakenly born as a girl. Yet as he grew up, his body began to betray him; eventually J stopped praying to wake up a “real boy” and started covering up his body, keeping himself invisible–from his family, from his friends… from the world. But after being deserted by the best friend he thought would always be by his side, J decides that he’s done hiding–it’s time to be who he really is. And this time he is determined not to give up, no matter the cost.
Let’s talk about the writing and structure of this story first and then we’ll get to the content. One of the most striking things in the telling of J’s story is that because it’s written in the third person, the reader really feels the disconnect when J is referred to as a girl. We hear “he ambled down the street” and “she cast him a glance”–and then suddenly, jarringly this “he” and “him” is Jenifer or is a daughter or a she. With this third-person narration, there’s never a question about what gender J really is: it’s as obvious to the reader as it is to J that he’s a boy and always has been.
While I Am J does feel like a throwback to the problem novel sometimes, with certain scenes feeling a little heavy-handed (especially when J remembers going to the boardwalk with his dad as a child and encountering transkids, whom his father finds repulsive), J’s interest in photography and his plans for college late in the book helped mitigate this to some extent. The book is still about the struggles J faces in starting his physical transition and finding acceptance among friends and family, but he’s a whole person within that narrative. Secondary characters are also often multifaceted, or at least have distinct personality traits to make them more than just stock characters. That being said, J’s best friend Melissa is a dancer and a cutter, and her cutting was occasionally a distraction from what was going on with J; it felt at times as if there were just too many things rolled up in this story.
The only other thing that irked me was that when J decides to run away from home, it felt a little like a privileged kid experimenting with what life would be like if he had real problems. There was nothing that was really driving him away from home at that point. Later, though, his mother insists he continue staying with Melissa and her mom long past the date she’d originally suggested as a cooling off period for their family, and later still J feels betrayed when he finds out that it’s his mom who doesn’t want him coming home, not his father like she’s been saying. Those scenes of rejection and separation felt more real than J’s initial motivation in running away.
So now we can get to the content. Whenever someone writes about a character from a minority group or a disadvantaged segment of the population, I think we need to raise the question of authenticity. Beam addresses this in the afterword: while she herself is not transgender, she has a trans foster daughter, and her partner also defies the gender binary–and she’s made a career in working with the trans community. She acknowledges:
Of course, it’s scary to take an imaginative leap and write a character who is not you. I have known and loved several people who are like J, but J is not me. I’m not of trans experience, and I know what tricky territory this is, partly because there are still not enough published works by transgender authors, proclaiming their lived experience.
We still desperately need transpeople to tell their own story, but until then, I Am J helps fill the enormous gap in stories on transkids in YA lit.
I Am J not only tells one transkid’s story, but also tackles and hints at other issues around the trans community and the process of transition. Medical consent is a problem at first for J when he wants to start taking testosterone. Not everyone at his GLBT high school is supportive of one another or of each segment of the queer community. J himself is a little homophobic at the start of the story, although he grows out of that by the end. A couple different straight characters at first think J is intersex when he tells them he’s transgender (and then he’s forced to explain the difference). Different characters have different opinions on whether one should out him or herself as trans when beginning a new relationship. J’s family and friends–new and old–react very differently to his coming out and his physical transition. Through these scenes and discussions, the reader gets to see a detailed picture of the trans experience.
I especially liked that I Am J gives readers a picture of the trans community. Parrotfish kind of falls short in comparison here, since Grady is defining himself entirely on his own with no real precedent or support group of other transpeople. At some point (I can’t remember this exactly), I think the gym teacher says something like, “We had another transkid a few years ago…” but there’s no sense of connection to that person who came before. J gets to tap into a community, and being able to see different people and stories and histories through his eyes, we get a fuller picture of what it can mean to be transgender. I Am J also explores the physical transition with testosterone injections and not just modifying one’s dress and appearance to pass, something Parrotfish also doesn’t really do. (I haven’t read Luna, so I can’t compare it to I Am J–and I think that these three books are just about all YA lit has to offer right now when it comes to trans characters.)
And finally, I really liked that J isn’t just trans–he’s also Puerto Rican and Jewish. At YALSA’s YA Lit Symposium, one of the points that kept coming up (for example, during the talk on disability in YA lit) is that people want to read “and” books: books about kids who are black AND gay, or disabled AND poor. I Am J offers that, and I’m glad.
In short, I Am J is excellent addition to the too-slowly growing number of titles about trans kids that explores new territory in new ways. 4/5.