Going for the Gold Sunday Links

  • Over at Booklights they’re trying to answer that age-old parenting question: how do you decide when your child is ready for great books that deal with tough themes?  Here they’re looking specifically at Charlotte’s Web.
  • Looking for specific action you can take on whitewashing of book covers?  School for Activists has some tips for booksellers who would like to add their voice.
  • I love this post on a class using google maps to track the action in Percy Jackson.  What a fun way to make some clasroom connections between literature, geography, and technology!  I think projects like this one can really inspire kids (and teachers and librarians!) to find new ways to look at the tools that are at our disposal.  And some of the realizations that the kids have about the books are really cool.  (Hat tip to Jen Robinson)
  • Collecting Children’s Books’ round-up of fictional stories about book reports cracked me up.
  • There’s been quite a bit of talk about gender in YA books recently, and Diana Peterfreund’s post When a Woman Does It really gets to the heart of it.  I need to read this woman’s book!
  • This is such a wonderful list of resources put together by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich at the Tenners’ blog.  It makes me all giddy to be put in the company of some amazing folks!
  • I really like Patrick Ness.  I liked him even more when I get to the end of this Guardian review, where he asks a great question: why do we have the make the easy choice when it comes to gender and attraction in books?  In this case, the boy who the male main character finds himself attracted to turns out, predictably, to be a woman in disguise.  Good on Patrick Ness for calling other authors out on this, and for pointing out that gay teens might want to read genre books, too.  The conversations continues at Bookwitch – do read the comments.  (Hat tip to Read Alert.)
  • Want some total and complete horror in your life?  Meet the people who are censoring your textbooks.  And then meet the school that used school-issued laptops to spy on teens and families.  And then go have a good cry and hide under your bed for the rest of the day.
  • If you need a little levity after reading those articles, head over to the always-delightful 100 Scope Notes to see what books are going to look like in the year 3001.
  • Still have folks asking you why whitewashing is such a big deal?  This new post at The Book Smuggler’s is a great place to send them.
  • And finally: Is R.L. Stine phoning it in?  Survey says yes!  I think we have that first one at the library.  (Hat tip to 100 Scope Notes.)

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Delphine is old for an eleven-year-old.  You’ve met these kids before – serious girls who seem to take the weight of the world onto their small shoulders.  When her mother was still around, she taught Delphine to be unselfish, silent, and self-sufficient – not the most childlike qualities.  And ever since her mother took off and left Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern alone with their father, Delphine has taken on a lot of responsibility for her younger sisters.

And now, in the summer of 1968, the three girls are on their way across the country to Oakland to spend a summer with their absentee mother.  The younger girls arrive with dreams of hugs and kisses from mom, sunny days on the beach, and trips to Disneyland.  Those hopes are dashed pretty quickly – instead it’s going to be greasy take-out food, a mother who resents their presence in her house, and days spent at the free summer program led by the local Black Panthers.

As a historical novel, one of the strengths of this story is that it makes the political into the personal.  Instead of dropping these three girls into a major historical moment from the history of the Black Panthers, as is the temptation in historical fiction, Garcia-Williams instead gives us a family story that takes place within the context of day-to-day life among the people who made up the movement.  The story shows a side of the Black Panthers that doesn’t get a lot of attention now, and as Delphine points out didn’t get noticed even at the time – the free community breakfasts and peaceful rallies instead of the confrontational tactics that are usually remembered.  Their sudden relationship with the Black Panthers does change the girls significantly, making them take a closer look at their own identity as well as the social change that is happening around them, but never in a way that is didactic.  It just grows out of the story. 

Williams-Garcia also manages to make the late-sixties setting always present, slipping in details about television shows or clothes, without making it feel too distant.  The details she chooses are evocative enough to give a sense of time, but relatable enough that kids won’t feel alienated in that capital-H Historical Fiction kind of way.   As with any great historical fiction, the center of the novel is not the history, but instead a universal story, in this case a family story about both the struggle for the love of a parent and the search for a personal identity.

Cecile is not like any mother that these girls have ever seen – her kitchen is used for writing and printing poems, not for laundry and making dinner.  In a children’s story where three little girls are sent to stay with their distant, uncaring mother, it is easy to expect the kind of trite sea-change that would lead to Cecile suddenly turning into a maternal figure.  Instead, she seems to develop a grudging respect for the three girls – a growth arc that is both more interesting and more true to the character than what could have been a stock character reversal. 

The family dynamic between the three sisters is a treat to read.  These are three very different girls – responsible almost-grown-up Delphine, dramatic and needy Vonetta, and set-in-her-ways Fern who notices things around her.  While they bicker and argue between themselves, as siblings do, they are also fiercely loyal to each other, especially any time that they step outside of the primarily-black community where they live.  When they go on the offensive they present a hysterical united front to the world – these girls will batter down any takers with a wall of little-girl patter coming from three sides.  Their relationship is a big part of what makes this book such a delight.

Rita Williams-Garcia on the web.

Ash by Malinda Lo

“‘Have you ever wanted to be a princess?’ Ash challenged her.

‘That depends,’ Kaisa said.

‘On what?’

‘On whether I would have to marry a prince.'” (pg. 199)

I love fairytale re-tellings, but I find that many of them fall into two camps that make them less rewarding to read: either the author is so faithful to the original story that there is very little mystery and the reader has little new to discover, or the re-telling is so widely divergent from the original story that the reader loses the added depth of meaning that the base of a traditional story can bring to a novel.  Ash is one of the re-tellings I’ve read that manages to walk the fine line between those two extremes, finding ways to make the story fresh and new while expanding and building on the original fairytale’s themes.

Ash was brought up on her mother’s tales of fairies – menacing stories that have horrible consequences for the mortals who get involved in the fairy world.  But her father and her new stepmother have no faith in the old stories, so Ash keeps her worries to herself even as she is slowly getting pulled into a strange sort of friendship with a fairy who seems to be protecting her.  Even though Ash is constantly aware of the fact that the stories never end well for mortals, and that every thing she gains from her fairy protector will make her consequences deeper, she almost seems to court the danger of the fairy stories.  And of course her father dies, and of course she is pressed into service in her stepmother’s house.  But then some thing unexpected happens – over and over again Ash finds herself in the company of Kaisa, the King’s Huntress.  And soon she finds herself seeking out Kaisa’s company.

Malindo Lo creates a lovely and atmospheric world, where the woods are deep and full of magic and the important things are often expressed through fairy stories.  The writing is lyrical and has the feel of a traditional fairy tale, but I did find the pacing a bit off – slow in the first half of the book, and then rushed in the second half.  I found myself wishing that the ending, especially the climactic scene between Ash and the fairy Sidhean, had been fleshed out further and given more time to develop.  This was definitely one of those books where you take a look at how many pages are left and wonder how the story can possibly be resolved before you run out of book.  And while it was resolved, it did leave me wanting a little bit more.

The love between Kaisa and Ash is refreshingly not one in which the characters are swept off their feet.  It grows slowly and naturally, starting with curiosity and awkward conversations and moving into a wonderful slow-burning tension between the two characters.  Also refreshing was the lack of any agonized questioning of Ash’s sexuality – while she sometimes seems surprised to be falling in love with a woman, the different genders of her potential lovers do not seem to play in her decision.  All in all, this was a book that I really enjoyed.  I will be looking forward to more from Malinda Lo.

Malindo Lo on the web.

Superbowl Sunday Links

  • I’m currently working on a project with Ari and Doret to take a closer look at each of the major publishing house’s lists.  We’re looking for books that have diverse characters, and also for a diversity of experiences in books about characters of color.  If you think of any books published between 2007 and 2010 featuring people of color that might not be easily identified from the flap copy or reviews, please leave the name of the books in a comment here or at Ari’s.
  • XKCD on what happens when the fantasy novel is over.
  • Whitewashing isn’t the only racism we see on book covers.  Check out this post on the consistent use of stereotypes on the covers of books with Asian authors or settings.
  • At the SFWA, writer Nisi Shawl shares some tips on writing about people from other races and cultures in a way that is sensitive and sincere. (Hat tip to Mitali Perkins)
  • A fun conversation between Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan on their very different writing styles.
  • This is exactly why librarians need to be at the front line of school improvement efforts.  (Hat tip to Jen Robinson.)
  • I’m sure that you’ve all heard more than enough about the Macmillan/Amazon kerfuffle.  In case you’re looking for more, here are three smart takes on what happened and why: Cory Doctorow, Scott Westerfeld, and Tobias Buckell.
  • It’s nice, every once in a while, to have somebody who’s not a librarian putting into words the vibrant community that you should see in a modern library.  Thanks to the writer of this editorial, No Silence at the Library Suits Me Just Fine.
  • 8-bit library wants to broaden readers advisory – why not base advisory services on a video game or a movie?  I find this can be a great way to get a kid talking about what they like when they’re not a big reader – I haven’t met a kid yet who won’t tell me about their favorite game, tv show, or movie.  I love the idea of taking that one step further and creating advisory lists and resources.
  • Some very cool design going on over here, with bookmarks that extend the book cover.  I want! (Hat tip to Fuse #8)
  • Publisher’s Weekly has got the goods on Libba Bray’s upcoming series, which sounds AMAZING.  A supernatural thriller set in ’20s Manhattan that features, in the words of the woman herself, “a wild new ride full of dames and dapper dons, jazz babies and Prohibition-defying parties, conspiracy and prophecy—and all manner of things that go bump in the neon-drenched night.”  Wow wow wow YES!
  • Adam Rex presents his first Bookalike – pictures sent in from a reader who is pretty sure that the main character in The True Meaning of Smekday was based on her.  I’m convinced!

January ’10 Reading Log

YA

Middle Grade

Kids and YA Nonfiction

Graphic Novels

Adult Fiction

Adult Nonfiction

Didn’t Finish

Currently Reading

Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“I have it in my head that when we’re born, God writes things down on our hearts.  See, on some people’s hearts he writes happy and on some people’s hearts he writes sad and on some people’s hearts he writes crazy and on some people’s hearts he writes genius and on some people’s hearts he writes angry and on some people’s hearts he writes winner and on some people’s hearts he writes loser…  And it’s all pretty much random.  He takes out his pen and starts writing on our blank hearts.  And when it came to my turn, he wrote sad.” (pg. 11)

Zach is 18 years old, and instead of spending his senior year in Mr. Garcia’s English class or hanging out with his friends, he’s spending it with Adam, his therapist in rehab.  Zach can’t, or won’t, remember the events that brought him to the clinic.  In fact, much of his time is spent trying not to remember anything at all.  But the memories of his life before – of his loving but alcoholic father, of his distant and sometimes abusive mother, of his troubled older brother Santiago who holds the whole family hostage to his terrible anger – keep creeping in.

The first few chapters of Zach’s narration are told in language that is fragmented, dense, and repetitive.  Brief memories float up to the surface, like the little pieces of paper Zach imagines covering the world with words.  While the language brings the reader deeply and authentically inside the mind of a troubled young man, it is also really difficult to read.  I almost gave up.  I’m so glad I didn’t.  Because as Zach peels away the barriers that he has put up – whether it is the barriers created by the haze of bourbon and cocaine that was his life before rehab, or the mental barriers that he uses as protection from his own past – this novel grows from a profoundly sad portrait of young man and blooms into something much more.

Zach certainly can’t be considered lucky in his life, but he does have the good fortune to meet a few people who truly see him as he is.  His English teacher, Mr. Garcia, sees through to the bright, creative young man who hides behind silence and sadness, and he reaches out to him.  Adam, the therapist at Zach’s rehab clinic, also sees past Zach’s many barriers and tries to help him break past them. But there is one person who actually reaches past those barriers and touches Zach.

Zach’s roommate in rehab has the name of an artist or an angel, and to Zach he is both of those things.  As Zach learns Rafael’s heartbreaking story, and watches this man who should be broken fighting to conquer his monsters and live his life, Zach begins to search for the strength in himself to face his own past, and maybe his future.  Their relationship becomes the emotional heart of the story, even more than the traumatic event that Zach has buried deep in his mind.  While the reader has seen the depth of Zach’s internal life, he has not been able to share any of his struggles with others.  Rafael is the first person who convinces Zach to share what is buried inside of himself – both the good and the bad.  It is a relationship that is truly transformational, and it is written with deep emotion and grace.

This is a devastating, crying-on-the-subway kind of book, but it ends on a note of hope – and not one that felt forced or false.  Despite his many trials and tribulations, Zach is a beautiful young man, and Sáenz tells his story in a way that will stay with the reader.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz on the web