Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Shelf Discovery Reading Challenge - Five to Go!

Well, that's one down. Two weeks ago, I spent a few pleasurable days with Madeline L'Engle's classic A Wrinkle in Time. Now comes the question - how does one write about these books for the Shelf Discovery Challenge? Whereas this one was an easy read because I a) have already read through it once, and b) already own it, I feel like it's the more challenging to write about because my opinions on it are already well formed, not to mention that Ms. Skurnick does a really fine job of writing A Wrinkle in Time, so good and spunky and true that it's almost a disservice to try to add anything to the topic, at least as far as Shelf Discovery goes...

The other books I chose deliberately because I had not read them, but in one way or another, I've always felt compelled to, either because they are long-staying YA classics or because their impact can be felt in great YA books of today or because there was something about them that sticks out so sharply, I could not ignore my interest (I'm looking at you, My Darling, My Hamburger). But A Wrinkle in Time I picked for a different reason, mostly out of sentiment, but not for the book itself. Rather, what the book has always reminded me of, what it has always been a symbol of, other than what is actually contained in the story, has been my mother's continual support and interest in my love of reading.

I've always been an avid reader - cliched, out-of-date slang insults for me could include bookworm, booknerd, etc. - but not necessarily of particularly distinguished taste. A lot of the stuff I read as an intermediate-level reader - ages six through 10 - were your common variety kids' junk read, maybe with some Boxcar Children or Roald Dahl or Lowis Lowry mixed in. I read a lot of The Babysitters Club. I read thin little paperbacks with sixth grade kids getting into mild trouble with their friends/family/school but nothing dire, nothing tragic, nothing impactful. I read some mysteries, mostly pointless stuff. I'm not completely deriding what I read at that age, but I didn't have an emphasis in anything classic. My mother tried to get me interested in Nancy Drew, but it seemed too old fashioned. I read the same first half of Little Women in the same green, hardbacked copy from the library, but never moved beyond the "little women's" childhood. I read a lot of books twice, three times, four times over. I thought about what I was reading, but not really beyond what I thought of the main character, what I thought of her/his family, what I thought of his/her friends. I was a greedy reader, but superficial in my understanding.

I don't look at my reading from then and think totally dismissively, or even that "ugh, look at all the crap I read then compared to the stuff I read now!" - if I'm honest, my taste has never been to pure classics or the upper echelon of literary fiction or the driest and most researched of contemporary non-fiction. I have certain basic requirements in what I read as an adult, and I hold these standards to everything I read, whether it be the children's books that are my professional life, or the occasional adult read that I use as valued breaks from the sometimes monotony of reading for the same demographics over and over again. But my basic requirements are just that - basic: I don't like stuff that is preachy, or wears its morals as some kind of necessary endorsement for the value of the book. I can't read books with stilted or unnatural dialogue, unless there is virtually none in the book. I don't like heavyhanded metaphors or blown up simile. I tend not to read too many books about beautiful women having trouble finding "Prince Charming" because there's only so much of that I can stomach. Etc.

But I digress. Anyway, from the start, my mother was really, really happy that I was a reader. She's a reader. She reads fairly mainstream stuff, mostly mystery stuff (usually of the Janet Evanovich variation), but she reads a lot. It was her who influenced me to never go anywhere without something to read - which is why I've ended up in Disney World ride queues, nose-deep in a book while slowly making the way to the top of the line for Splash Mountain, and which is why if I ever finish a book midway through my commute home, I'm at a loss with what to do with myself on public transportation. She was one of those parents who never hesitated to buy me a book (still doesn't, if we're in a bookstore together, although that has fallen off considerably since I've worked at a bookstore). She was one of those parents that didn't mind that sometimes I was caught reading a book in class, when I should have been doing something - probably anything - else. When I got older, and she didn't have an audio book for long car rides, I'd read aloud to her.

She was very proud of my love of reading, and of that fact that I was a fairly advanced reader for my age, but I think she always had a little trouble with what I was reading. Scratch that - Maybe it was just that she wanted to share books with me, but I was resistant. Like with Nancy Drew - At nine, her smoothness and old fashioned propriety seemed to be exceptionally counter to the rough-hewn kidness that was me at that age. It seemed like Nancy Drew went alongside of my mother's concern that I didn't play with enough girls, or that I wasn't girly enough. It seemed like Nancy Drew was just another plot in trying to get me to act a certain way, and who wants to act to their mom's preference at nine years old?

So stubborn was I that I failed even to admit a resemblance to the main character of A Wrinkle in Time, another read my mother consistently championed to me. If I had read it then, I would have learned exactly what I know now - that Meg Murry, in her stubborn, mousy, outcast glory, was the best side of what could have been commonly perceived as the worst traits in a young woman. And [spoiler alert] she saves the day! She's a heroine, but not in attractive blouses and skirts, not ladylike, really, at all. Her strength lies beyond posturing, outward appearance, beyond superficial notions of being a girl.

Her strength lies in the vulnerability that makes her so susceptible to fits of rage toward her teachers and peers. The fierce protectiveness of those that she loves prompts her to hit a boy for insulting her brother, Charles Wallace, but it also prompts her to face the strongest of evils, the overwhelming darkness. It allows her to walk into the face of danger itself and succeed where the "stronger" males around her failed.

On the simplest level, my mother wanted me to read a book that she knew and cared for, and hoped that her book-happy daughter would feel the same. If I were to go a bit deeper, and who knows, there might not be any truth to this, but let's give my mom bigger interests for the sake of a good story, maybe what my mother really wanted to do was give me a book that told me that deep down inside, she wanted me to be who I was, be the child and the girl and the young woman that I was. Maybe her pushing this book on me was an easier way for her say to her only daughter, "I love you as you are."

That's conjecture, of course. But she was so right to want me to read this book, that how could I ever look back on my childhood and not think that my mother understood me perfectly?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Yep, it's giveaway time again!

This time, I'm giving away a little pair of books that would be a great gift for the young or young-at-heart in your life. They were both kindly donated by Workman Publishing, who other than being top-notch at publishing fun and offbeat kids items, are also high in the promotional package ranking. When a Workman box comes in, it's all grabby hands and exclamations.


Up for grabs: Rufus Seder's "Scanimation" titles Gallop and Wallop. For those of you who aren't familiar, "Scanimation" is an animated book page. As you flip through the book, the pictures on the page move in near continuous flow. Both Gallop and Waddle are about the way animals move, so there is a moving animal to accompany the text.

It's kind of hard to explain. How about Mr. Seder explains his craft:

Clear things up? Basically these books are really, really neat, and super fun to read to children.

How to win this awesome pair? Simple:
1. Enter by December 10th
2. Enter by leaving a comment on this post with your email and the answer to this question: If you could be any animal (other than human) what would you be and why.

Okay, you only have until December 10th, so enter now!

As to the question at hand, I'd be a domesticated bear. Like being a dog, but with better perks.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Not a review: Stitches by David Small

Since it was announced as a National Book Award finalist for Young People's Literature, Stitches has undergone excessive scrutinizing, mostly from the people best at scrutinizing children's literature: teachers and librarians. And believe me, no one dissects a book's "appropriateness" like this group. It's not because they're conservatives or prudes or have a collective stick up their collected behinds (although some of them do). Unlike critics, who can rest soundly on their superiority-stuffed pillows, teachers and librarians have to answer for the critical decisions they make. You give a sixth grader a book that causes them to ask certain questions or stay up all night terrified or even commit a particular indiscretion, and you're not going to be able to fall back on the argument, "But it's a good book!" Parents are always going to be concerned with what their kids are reading, even if they're simply thankful that their kids are reading in the first place. And teachers and librarians are the primary sources of said reading material.

The NBA for young readers isn't as susceptible to contradiction from this group as say, the Newberry Award, which has always seem to play it safe for this very reason. As many librarians that support the Newberrys getting a bit edgier with their choices, there are parents ready to complain that despite a book being an award-winning, critically merited, valued piece of children's literature, it is just not age-appropriate for a child. A Newberry medal sticker on a book gives it a certain elevated presence that makes it acceptable in classrooms, libraries, booklists, etc, which makes those paying the most attention all the more careful about what might get the attention of parents and children.

The NBA doesn't have the exact same problem, because 1) it usually concerns reading material for young adults, not intermediate-level readers, and 2) because it's a fairly green award (it's only been around since 1996). Also, the National Book Awards are not typically thought of as an academic award, meaning that while readers of all types (casual, academic, otherwise) should take note of this specific piece of literature, the books don't often make an easy case for themselves as classroom curriculum.

Still, any award that specifically classifies itself as for "Young People's Literature" is going to come under some scrutiny when it comes to age-appropriate finalists. David Small's Stitches was never going to pass through unscathed.

There is little negative I can say about this work, aside from that I desperately wish there was more of his story. David Small grew up in a tension-filled household filled with people desperately repressing the anger that seemed to define their relationships to each other. His remote mother would quickly go from steely silence to banging cabinet doors in the kitchen, seemingly possessed by rage while unable to communicate her feelings to her family. His father and brother each had their own respective outlets, but Small's only display of vulnerability was in a near constant stream of sickness, tracing from birth to sinus problems in his early childhood. His father, a radiologist, treated them with home X-Rays.

Even as a very young child, Small's outlet lay in the rich imaginary life that both fulfilled and haunted him. Dressing up as the titular character of Alice in Wonderland, obsessing over the fetus in a jar that he came across at his father's hospital, ceaselessly escaping into his drawing (something often portrayed literally in the book).

There's endless dysfunction to the household: his mother's erratic behavior is eclipsed by her mother's even more abusive and dangerous reactions to childish imperfection and inquisitiveness. His father willfully endangers his son's life without thought to the consequences of his action, not to mention remaining oblivious to inner turmoil of his wife and sons. Then a growth is discovered on David's neck, and his parents take considerable time to have it dealt with (nearly four years) keeping the cancer a secret until well after the surgeries that would leave their son with a large scar running up his neck and without the ability to speak.

The graphic novel works as a slow burn to what becomes a fairly quick redemption, but that is not to say that it wraps up neatly or in any half-cocked fashion. Small, a gifted picture book author, knows how to layout a story to achieve the best momentum. Odd as it might seem, there's so much tension in the first half of the book, that by the time David undergoes the surgeries, loses his voice, and finds out that he had cancer all along, it's almost a relief to have these very deep family problems come to the surface, albeit in a horrifying way.

Panel after panel, page after page, the rendering is pitch perfect. Some panels are crystal clear, but most are drawn in a slightly distorted perspective, the marriage of the child's perspective and the man's uneven memories. The voiceless extension of pain and confusion echoes in the pages-long spreads of wordless visuals.

In theme and tone, Stitches inhabits a place shared by Fun Home and Persepolis - not simply graphic memoirs, but graphic memoirs of such specific, private tragedy, intimate in how closely the reader is brought into the story, but universal in the themes of pain, disillusionment, alienation, and the deepest cuts of family ties. Also like its kin works, Stitches is about a young man's redemption through art, through the ability to express what one may not be able to say, to give sound into the void, sight into the dark. Art allowed Small to free his anger, free his confusion and hurt, and free himself from the toxic environment that was his reality and pervaded into his dreamlife.

No question, this is one of the best books I've read this year. So the real the concern: Should this book be eligible for an award meant to celebrate "Young People's Literature." First off, I'll say that everywhere I've been, Stitches can be found in the adult section. We have a kids' graphic novel collection at my store, but this book can be found on display in the adult comics/graphic novel section. Would it appeal to a young audience?

Yes, it is mostly about an adolescent, but the family history is dark, painful and darkly confusing. And while the intended demographic of YA literature is teenagers, most kids regularly shopping the YA section are under the age of sixteen. Avid readers above a certain age are going to leave the YA section behind (unfortunate, but true) in favor of adult reading, which means that most kids browsing in the YA section are probably too young for Stitches. I would gladly hand this book to an avid reader seventeen and up, if I knew enough about their reading history. But to the average young shopper in my section, I'd probably sooner hand over Persepolis, because as heavy as Sartrapi's story is, a culture's history is explained in its impact on the young life of a one woman is going to be less terrifying than plain childhood abuse and negligence. Also, Small's visual exploration can be quite graphic and disturbing. I wouldn't hand this to the average young reader, just as I wouldn't hand a dozen classic contemporary titles to the average young reader. But not just because of what their parents might say - my mother let me have free run on what I read, and I still believe that was mostly the right strategy - but because I wouldn't expect a young reader to fully enjoy the depth and nuance of this story. If a teen were to ask for a graphic novel suggestion in my YA department, something specifically offbeat, I would offer them Shaun Tan's The Arrival or Tales From Outer Suburbia. They aren't better than Stitches, just possibly more accessible.

The real problem I have with Stitches being among the finalists for this award is that it renders meaningless the categorical separation between what is meant for adult readers and what is meant for young readers. There are a ton of adult books that would well serve older teenage readers, but the importance of awards for children's literature is how well it publicize worthy literature that has been strictly categorized as for "children." Among finalists that are actually children's lit, Stitches has the undeniable advantage of being the more sophisticated read. It's a challenge for a young reader, a worthy challenge, but not necessarily fair competition.

The book is starting to make appearances on "Best of 2009" lists, and every one of them has placed it squarely in the adult books category. This is true enough - while this book can, and most certainly will, be enjoyed by older teenage readers, this is undoubtedly a book that adults are going to gravitate to: the dark subject matter, no matter how much redemption lie at the end, will surely alienate many teens used to reading the lighter graphic novels meant for young readers.

If winning the National Book Award for Young People's Literature will help bring Stitches to a young audience, that's fantastic. But there are other worthy children's books that deserve the same attention.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Friday Finds!

Not too many finds this week. My roommate keeps making Half-Price Books runs without me, so he's been doing far better than I in the "finds" area. Still, it seems like I can't get through a week without my shelves bulging just a bit more. Here's the few books that I rounded up this week:

- Stolen by Lucy Christopher
An upcoming Spring release from Scholastic, this one came wrapped in black paper with a orange butterfly sticker, mimicking the simple, stark cover design. I don't know what to expect with this one - a story written as a letter from a kidnapped girl to her captor, these kind of books can be really engrossing, but also borderline exploitative and titillating. There will always be this trend in YA literature, as girls never seem to tire of stories that both demonstrate extreme survival and the ultimate lesson of "some girls have it way worse."

And I received two very nice paperbacks from the wonderful people at Harper Perennial:

-More of This World or Maybe Another by Barb Johnson
I have a galley of this book that I read last May, but I'm so glad to have a published copy. I loved this book - the craftsman-like detailing that Johnson does really creates this vivid community that serves as the focus of these interwoven stories. A multi-character portrait of a rundown New Orleans community, this is a great book for people who don't usually read short story collections because it works as both story collection and collective novel.

- Girl Trouble by Holly Goddard Jones
Of the short story collections I've devoured this past year, I've yet to dig into a collection lengthy or dense, but I think Girl Trouble might fill that void. Another sure to be wonderful collection of stories from Harper Perennial, this one came out this past September. Also, this is another Southern-touched collection, and it seems that there is no end to my fascination with the landscape and character described from the various perspectives of Midwest and Southern culture. I plan on getting into this one as soon as I can make room for an adult read.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Shelf Discovery Challenge!

You can't throw a stone in blogville without hitting a reading challenge, but I finally stumbled upon one that I think I can manage. Courtesy Booking Mama, the "Shelf Discovery Challenge" asks its readers to choose six books featured in the the book Shelf Discovery by Lizzie Skurnick, read them in the next six months, a report on each one.

About Shelf Discovery:
Launched from her regular feature column Fines Lines for Jezebel.com, this spastically composed, frequently hilarious omnibus of meditations on favorite YA novels dwells mostly among the old-school titles from the late '60s to the early '80s much beloved by now grown-up ladies. This was the era, notes the bibliomaniacal Skurnick in her brief introduction, when books for young girls moved from being wholesome and entertaining (e.g., The Secret Garden and the Nancy Drew series) to dealing with real-life, painful issues affecting adolescence as depicted by Beverly Cleary, Lois Duncan, Judy Blume, Madeleine L'Engle and Norma Klein. Skurnick groups her eruptive essays around themes, for example, books that feature a particularly memorable, fun or challenging narrator (e.g., Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy); girls on the verge, such as Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret or danger girls such as Duncan's Daughters of Eve; novels that deal with dying protagonists and other tragedies like child abuse (Willo Davis Roberts's Don't Hurt Laurie!); and, unavoidably, heroines gifted with a paranormal penchant, among other categories. Skurnick is particularly effective at spotlighting an undervalued classic (e.g., Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase) and offers titles featuring troubled boys as well. Her suggestions will prove superhelpful (not to mention wildly entertaining) for educators, librarians and parents.

Maureen, the lovely marketing director at my bookstore, was nice enough to hand me a galley copy of this book last Spring, and I have periodically read through bits and pieces of it. It's that perfect kind of browsing book - you can pick it up, read a few entries, put it down, and repeat.

The real joy of Shelf Discovery is discovering and re-discovering books that, while ultimately intended for young readers, continue to leave lasting impressions on women who later went to create lasting works of writing themselves. Nothing quite like authors gushing about books to pique my interest.

As an excuse to read some vintage YA literature, this challenge is perfect for me, but it's also going to be fun to re-explore books that I read at the proper demographic, ones that I may remember fondly or unhappily or hardly at all.

The challenge asks you to read six of the books featured in the text in six months, but I'm thinking about attempting to double that number. We'll see how I fare. For now, here are my six books:

- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle
Why: This was the book that my mom kept insisting that I try as a kid, but I never bothered to follow her advice... until I randomly picked this up the summer before college. Having read When You Reach Me this past summer, I've been wanting to re-read this classic that I only embraced late into my teens.

-Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green
Why: This past year, I've read two books that have been cited as inspired by this 1973 work by Bette Green, concerning a Jewish girl who harbors a Nazi escapee from a POW labor camp during the close of World War II. But I've never read this one, so now's the time.

-The Grounding of Group 6 Julian F. Thompson
Why: I have never heard of this book, but it's from the tail end of the first YA wave, and its premise - six teenagers are sent to an academy where there parents have paid for them to be "poisoned and thrown into deep crevasses" - sounds promising enough. Skurnick, writing about this book, calls into focus the prevalence of bad parents in this wave of young adult fiction, something that, while not completely absent from today's YA, has long since been the trend. "So, as ascends Gilmore Girls, so dies a golden YA trope - the parent who deserves to die."

-My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel
Why: Because 1)It's Paul Zindel, and I still consider The Pigman one of my all-time favorites, 2) I've known of this book for a long time but never even knew what it was about, and 3)Um... the title. Yeah, I'm that simple.

-The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Spears
Why: One of those books that seems fundamental to a YA reading history, and yet, I haven't read it. I had many, many friends who read it, so I suppose I never felt it necessary to read it too, a mindset I'm all to liable to fall into still.

-Blubber by Judy Blume
Why: Judy Blume is the Queen of YA. The first wave would never have broken quite as hard without her books. As a teenager, I didn't read most of the Blume classics. I read Summer Sisters, her comeback, for adults title while I was in high school, but I haven't read any Blume since then. This one's a short fix, so I should be able to get to it in an afternoon. Mean girl politics, especially those at a pre-teen age, are nothing like what you commonly see on television now.

Okay... fingers crossed that I stay with this one. I'll be making periodic updates to my progress. If you're interested in joining the challenge, check out Booking Mama for more information.

A New Winner!

Congratulations to Pricilla! She has won a copy of Rhoda Janzen's Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.

Make sure to visit Pricilla's excellent blog Broken Teepee and send her congratulations.

No worries, friends - If you didn't win this time, I'll be posting another giveaway soon. Thanks to all who entered and special thanks to West of Mars for posting this giveaway and helping to get this fun book into welcoming hands.