libraries are not neutral spaces, and neither is the human heart

I’ve heard it in more than one training and workshop that part of customer service is when you’re faced with an unhappy or even irate patron, you should consider what has happened in their day, their week, their life, up until that very moment, that might be causing their distress. If there is an outburst, it’s very rarely about the fine or the missing item. It’s about the coffee they spilled in their car on their commute, or how their father always yelled at them when they misplaced things, and how once they had to go to school in the snow wearing only sandals because they’d lost their winter boots.

So it goes with those who work in libraries; we all have our own stories, chains of events and people that have created the person we are today. Our stories make us. Our stories are who we are. We share these narratives when appropriate, and listen to the narratives of others when required. (I’ve said before that all library service is made up of stories.)

I’ve been thinking about people and their stories very much these days. How the narratives black soldiers live can lead them to violence. How the narratives we perpetuate about the monstrosity of black men and boys leads to horrific murders that go unpunished.

I’ve heard these stories. My father had a derogatory name for Junior Mints that I won’t repeat. He also told me I could marry any man I wanted, but not a black man, because my father didn’t want any “[mixed] grandbabies.” (My father is no longer a part of my life, for this and many other reasons).

I’ve also heard other stories. My mother told me about her home ec teacher, Mrs. Hill, a woman who my mother greatly admired and adored. Hearing positive feelings for a black person was a revelation for me.

When my little brother was still very little and didn’t know much about the world, he called black people who stopped by our summer farm stand to buy fruit and vegetables “chocolate pudding people.” We watched Alex Haley’s Queen together, and when he asked me about what was happening, I talked to him as honestly and frankly about racism as  I could. He listened, and then went off to ponder some more; my mother came in and thanked me for talking to him about it.

Yet once when I was riding the bus and a black man struck up a perfectly pleasant conversation with me about chili recipes (I had a bag full of chili fixings with me, fresh from a trip to the grocery store), I was nervous and uneasy and, while not rude, not very polite, either; and to this day I can still see his expression–a mixture of resignation and anger, perhaps?

This is why we need diverse books. This is why there can never be enough. Black boys and girls need to hear stories about themselves as brave, resourceful, funny, beautiful, charming, sad, and more; and white children need to hear the same (about children who are not white). I wish I could find it written down somewhere, but at the Illinois Library Association conference, Shankar Vedantam said that it’s been shown that it is not enough to just have a black character doing something good in a story; for most audiences, that has to be explicitly pointed out for the story to have its greatest impact, on all children.

I sometimes cry on my way to work if I see a black or brown face in the cars next to me on the road, I hope that they don’t get stopped that day, or any day. I see children in the library and I want to tell them that I see them, that I have stories for them, that their stories are worth listening to.

I’m listening, no matter how much it breaks my heart.

It’s the least I can do.

image CC (Rosa Trieu/Neon Tommy)

 

No, really, let kids choose what they read

In case you need something to tide you over while you wait for your copy of Reading Unbound to arrive, here are some more quotes about why we need to let kids choose what they read.

We want to help our students fall in love with books in ways that foster a life-long devotion to reading. So what should schools do? We think the implications of our research are manifold, but two seem especially compelling.  First, our data make clear that educators should consider interpretive complexity in concert with textual complexity, a centerpiece of the Common Core State Standards.  Every text our participants read—from graphic novels to dark fiction to Harry Potterrequired sophisticated strategies for entering a story world and absorbing the twists and turns of the plot line and character relationships.  All fostered deep intellectual engagement.

Our data also convinced us of the importance of choice. Students should have regular opportunities to behave the way adult readers do and choose their own reading.   They know the kinds of texts from which they will take pleasure. At the same time, teachers should expand the possibility of pleasure by introducing students to new books they might not select on their own.

http://edublog.scholastic.com/post/why-kids-need-read-what-they-want

I love that this quote illustrates the role that “gate-keepers” should have–opening gates rather than closing them. Once a kid has read through everything they could find on their own, teachers and librarians can help them find the hidden treasures that will still meet their needs.

Reading is indeed crucial to success in school and in careers.  But we worry that discussions of reading, especially public policy discussions, focus almost exclusively on its utilitarian value. What’s missing is the pleasure readers derive from the reading they do.

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/11/the-most-important-lesson-schools-can-teach-kids-about-reading-its-fun/281295/

Again, people making these policy decisions know very little about children and child development; however, I do believe that Common Core, with its breadth of text types, actually encourages what I believe is important–giving children a wide variety of choices when it comes to what they read. Have you ever had it suggested that novels in verse are better for struggling readers because of the white space and shorter length? Then what about play scripts? White space abounds, it is mostly dialogue, and it very pointedly tells you what you’re seeing–but then again, it’s like a graphic novel without the images, and your imagination needs to fill in the pictures. HOW AWESOME IS THAT?

If I were Queen of the World, I would decree that all students be given the gifts of time and books they want to read throughout their schooling, and all pre-readers would have an adult who would read aloud to them everyday. Through independent reading children gain a wealth of background knowledge about many different things, come to understand story and non-fiction structures, absorb the essentials of English grammar, and continuously expand their vocabularies. Many also remember visually how to spell words. In a nutshell, the habit of reading does as much, if not more, than Direct Instruction and the rigorous demands of the Common Core. All without boring kids to death or persuading them that they’re dumb.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/08/why-kids-should-choose-their-own-books-to-read-in-school

Yes.

Years ago, I received a phone call from my godson’s mother. She said, “I know you told me to wait, but David is reading Harry Potter on his own.” David was in kindergarten. David read Harry Potter at 5 for the plot. He reread it at 10 for the plot, characters and emotional truths. He reread the entire series repeatedly the summer he was 13, to his mother’s dismay. “Can’t you get him to read something else?!” I didn’t even try.

NY Times Room for Debate

Yes. The importance of re-reading. I know, I know, there are so many books! But every time you re-read something, you gain something new. It’s magical.

The latest salvo comes from a survey released late last week by Scholastic Corp., a publisher of popular children’s books, which suggests that middle and high school students who have time to read books of their own choosing during the school day are also more likely to read frequently for pleasure.

“For us, choice is key,” said Kyle Good, a spokeswoman for Scholastic. “When you let kids choose the books they want to read, they’ll be voracious readers.”

In the survey, 78 percent of students, who read frequently for fun (at least five days a week), said they had time to read a book of choice during the school day. By contrast, 24 percent of infrequent readers — those who read for fun less than one day a week — said they had time to read a book of choice during the school day.

Chicago Tribune

Review of Reading Unbound, with links to supplementary material 

Top 5 Reasons to let kids choose their own books

 

you know what this is about. or you don’t.

You know, some librarians think the ARC issue is a waste of time, and others don’t. For my part, I don’t care to know much about cataloging beyond the surface basics, but I do appreciate the cataloging nerds who are really into it and keep it going and tell the rest about the most salient points.

It’s the same thing with the ARC situation. Not every librarian has the same passions, but as a whole profession we keep each other informed about a broad range of topics, and learn from each other.

Dismissing someone’s passions as invalid doesn’t do anyone any good.We all have different areas of expertise and passion, and we need to respect those. That’s the only way we can pull together, help each other, and move librarianship forward.

If you don’t care, don’t comment. If you do care, contribute. And also: don’t be a dick.

Listen, I’m Telling You Stories

Funerals are not for the dead, they are for the living. They are for those left behind, to act as a comforting play in which we know all the roles and there is no twist in the second act.

My mother would have hated her own funeral. It was a maudlin, religious, church bound affair, with a sermon by the very affable ginger haired priest, and some hymn played by the equally affable church organist. If I hadn’t been wracked with grief–if her death hadn’t been such a surprise and a shock–I would have known to have cut the hymn and played a recording of Mama Cass singing “Dream A Little Dream” or perhaps the Beatles singing “I Don’t Want to Spoil The Party.” The church location was fine, I suppose; it was the same church where her own mother had been the organist until her death, but the rest of it…ugh. My mother was many things, but she was not overtly sentimental or sappy. Where other mothers might have sent a card featuring a plucky kitten grasping a tree branch, with the sentiment of “Hang in there!”, my mother tended to send cards with lines like “Don’t forget that you’re the shit!”

So her funeral, with its heartfelt speeches and quiet sobs, would probably have galled her. “Jesus Christ on a crutch!” she’d say. “Don’t you have anything better to do? This town has bars, you know.”

My mother had grand aspirations as a girl. When I was young, I found some of her poetry, and several lines of it have stuck with me since I first read them:

Laying in the Weeds

Sing a song of love
Sing a song of hate
Sing a song of dreams
That always have to wait.

Simple, and not very good, you might think; but what might my mother have become if she hadn’t dropped out of college to move back home and work at the town factory? What if she hadn’t met my miserable, mentally ill father, who managed to charm her into marriage, and after that made it his mission in life to make her miserable?

Once, during a phone call, one of the few times I ever heard my mother cry, she said her terrible marriage had been worth it, because she’d gotten her four children out of it. To give me and my siblings life, she’d abandoned her own–her dreams of being a poet, a singer, a college graduate, the life of being a girl who met her girlfriends in the cemetery for picnics of pizza and beer–she replaced these with four children who tried her patience but whom she loved fiercely, and owed their existence to a man who was as cruel as Bluebeard but not half as sane.

I learned recently that even after birth, for decades after, fetal cells can remain inside the mother, and sometimes will act as positive agents, fighting diseases or repairing tissue. I wondered tonight, as the rainstorm lashed outside and I could not sleep, whether or not my baby cells fought to save my mother’s heart when it was slowing, breaking, and ultimately stopped early one morning in 2007. I hope they did. I hope they tried, because I would have, if I had been there.

I was not ready for my mother to go. Are we ever ready to lose the life of one we love, who sacrificed everything for us? Do we ever recover from the pain of losing them, or the joy of knowing that someone, once upon a time, loved us so much, and so deeply?

My memories of my mother are inextricably intertwined with certain stories. I discovered Stephen King by raiding my mother’s bookshelves, and to this day I still rue the loss of her limited edition copy of The Eyes of the Dragon, signed by the author and chewed by dog and lost in a house fire when I was fourteen. Whenever I watch Labyrinth I spend a moment of two thinking of the morning I woke up at five a.m. and wandered downstairs to find my mother and my little brother watching it because neither of them had been able to sleep. Sometimes I will listen to George Carlin’s Classic Gold album– which I really don’t have to any more, since I have it practically memorized– and remember the time my mother was listening to it in the car on our way to the Indian Head Supper Club to have lunch with my Aunt Pat, my mother’s bitchy, long haired chain smoking sister.

These stories–these connections—are what is vitally important to our lives. I don’t want us to forget that. We tell stories, and we keep stories, and we create stories so we can become ourselves, and remember the people who helped us along the way.

That’s what matters.

top 11 posts of 2011

When I first started this blog, I had no grand aspirations. I am passionate about the library field, child development, and children’s literature, and I wanted to have a place to express my thoughts, and I hoped that I would garner at least a dedicated, engaged readership. Fairly early on, I experienced the Elizabeth Bird bump, and for that I’ve always been grateful. I appreciate my twitter friends for all their conversation and ideas, and frankly, without them I probably wouldn’t be writing much at all.

Looking at my top posts, I realize that people love it when I write about things that a lot of librarians are probably thinking but are too scared to talk about, and my programs for children. I’m going to make an effort to write more about these topics in 2012, and also write more from the gut and the heart, no matter what the topic (my angsty review of Ingenue being an example of this new goal).

Thank you to all my readers for commenting, emailing my posts to your colleagues, and generally being awesome. Let’s do more of this in 2012.

top posts (excluding static pages):

11. Meow Mix. I think this is solely because of the cat picture, although I think my cat who doesn’t know how to meow storytime through line is pretty awesome.

10. Make it Happen: Teen Space. Pretty much an airing of grievances post that also allowed me to congratulate and laud a fellow librarian. Now complete with a comment I didn’t initially approve because it’s super negative, but hey, whatevs. Different strokes for different folks.

9. New Storytime Favorites. Why is this so popular? I dunno. Probably because I mention cats and I’m a librarian. The cat/librarian diagram is so venn it’s almost just a circle.

8. Tales of the Madman Underground: A Love Letter. This was a very personal post and book review, and I almost didn’t publish it. But this book is amazing and I think that librarians—much like teachers—need to fight for the right to be real, flawed, human people with pasts and problems like any other people. Just because we work with children doesn’t mean we’re all Mary Poppins, and we shouldn’t be punished for being real people. But seriously, read that book.

7. The Ethical Librarian. This one is me totally ranting and raving on my high horse while my horse is standing on a soapbox. You might as well call me the Bughouse Square librarian. I took an information ethics class in library school, one of the few actually challenging courses I took, and it ruined me forever. You’re welcome.

6. #makeitbetter. I just hate bad librarians. Sorry if you’re one of them.

5. You might not being doing it wrong, but you could certainly do it better. Ah, my screed against library schools. I might not get so worked up if I weren’t $50,000 in debt, but that ship’s sailed, huh? Good times. And by good times I mean kill me.

4. Librarian, Weed Thyself! Wherein I apply the CREW and MUSTIE methods to people. I am a monster. A pudgy, cuddly, hyberpolic monster.

3. Beginning Reader Storytime. A warm and fuzzy post about how I revamped my library’s preschool storytime. How…charming.

2. How to Become the Best, Most Versatile Baby & Toddler Programmer Ever. Babies and toddlers are tricky audiences.

And, unsurprisingly, the number one post of 2011 is…

1.  Summer Reading, Pain in my a**. So many people enjoyed my rants about the sacred cow of summer reading, which really pleased me. I love when people reassess long running programs with a fresh eye. Can’t wait to see what people do with their 2012 summer reading programs.

Happy new year, everyone!

Love,

Miss Julie

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

In 2012, A Wrinkle in Time will be fifty years old, and I’ll be one of many people celebrating this marvelous, mind-bending, heart opening piece of children’s literature.

It’s been a dark and stormy week here in a Chicago, which makes it a perfect time to reminisce about this, one of my favorite books of all time.

It was 1988. I was in the fourth grade, I had English class with Mrs. Sandoval. I loved her name–it was pronounced “Sanduhvall” (rhymed with fall)–but when I saw it, I always imagined an oval shaped sand box. I loved her eloquent speeches, her expressive reading voice, her slightly bohemian clothing, and her ginger hair. I loved her classroom, full of books and rich with new ideas and words. One of her rules was to “finish assignments within the allotted time.” I had no idea what “allotted” meant or that it was an actual word, and I, in my over-read fourth grade know-it-all-ness, asked her, “Are you sure you don’t mean ‘allowed’?” She kindly said no, allotted is the word she meant to use, and she gave me the dictionary so I could look it up–and so began my love of dictionaries.

We read so many good books in that class, including A Cricket in Times Square and Charlotte’s Web. Half-way through the year our class reading assignment was A Wrinkle in Time. The edition we read had this amazing, wackadoodle, good show sir worthy cover:Isn’t that insane? It completely blew my nine year old mind. The wings for arms, the creepy red-eyed disapproving turtle face, the mountains…several kids in my class mumbled and groaned their displeasure when they saw the book (actually, they hated every book, and I hated them with equal fervor), but I could hardly wait to start reading.

And that opening line! Who else could get away with using that line outside of the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest? Madeline, that’s who.

Here’s a synopsis from the publisher’s page, and the synopsis I remember from my youth, for you sad, sad people who haven’t read this book yet:

It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

“Wild nights are my glory,” the unearthly stranger told them. “I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me sit down for a moment, and then I’ll be on my way. Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.”

A tesseract (in case the reader doesn’t know) is a wrinkle in time. To tell more would rob the reader of the enjoyment of Miss L’Engle’s unusual book. A Wrinkle in Time, winner of the Newbery Medal in 1963, is the story of the adventures in space and time of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe (athlete, student, and one of the most popular boys in high school). They are in search of Meg’s father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government on the tesseract problem.

I immediately loved and identified with Meg Murray. Like Meg, I was an ugly duckling who had to protect herself and a younger brother from the cruelty of other children. I admired Meg’s hot-headedness and her willingness to stand up for herself and her beliefs. When I was faced with bullies, I tended to hang my head and wish for them to go away. I wished I had Meg’s foolhardy bravery and determination (I developed it as an adult, much to the chagrin of some of my friends, family and colleagues) instead of my low self-esteem and self-hatred.

I loved other characters, too: Charles Wallace, Mrs. Murray, the Ws, and I loved loved LOVED Calvin O’Keefe. What dorky, awkward girl didn’t love charming, awkward Calvin? He’s like the proto-Rory* (maybe that’s why I love Rory so much…) I loved to hate IT and its creepy, pulsing brain-ness, and the man with red eyes. I loved how Mr. Murray was real and flawed and yet Meg still loved him. (I myself had a real and flawed father who was proving to be less and less loveable every day, but that’s another story for another time).

I wanted to live in that rambling old farmhouse and eat tomato sandwiches and have an attic bedroom and a dog named Fortinbras. I was fascinated by how they made hot cocoa with milk, since I was used to powdered hot chocolate made with boiling water, usually in the microwave. I was as amazed at the mundane day to day details as I was at the time and space traveling aspects. This book was everything I needed and wanted.

I loved this book so much that not even hearing my fellow students reading aloud in their plodding monotones could hurt the story. While they stumbled along I was reading ahead, silently, desperately wishing to reach the end while simultaneously wanting the book to go on forever.

I cried when Meg saved her brother by loving him. I had never felt love like that from anyone, and I didn’t think I ever would. I couldn’t think of anyone in my life who would risk so much to save me, and I felt miserable, yet strangely elated—if brassy, bitchy, mousy, insecure Meg could find love, didn’t that mean that someday I could, too? I wished, that when I was cold and alone and scared, that I could crawl into the warm, loving arms of an Aunt Beast.

When I re-read this book, I experience my own wrinkle in time. I am simultaneously an adult, identifying a bit more with the adult characters in the novel, finding myself somewhat exasperated with Meg’s behavior, and a child, thrilling to the romance, danger, and overwhelming love of the novel the same as I did the first time I read it.

Someone recently told me that they’ve never read Wrinkle, yet they really enjoyed When You Reach Me. I said, I’m glad you enjoyed the book, but you only had half the experience.

You should fix that. Right now.

Especially if it’s a dark and stormy night as you read this.

Book Review: Ultraviolet

Ultraviolet, by R.J. Anderson.

Once upon a time there was a girl who was special.
This is not her story.
Unless you count the part where I killed her.

Sixteen-year-old Alison has been sectioned in a mental institute for teens, having murdered the most perfect and popular girl at school. But the case is a mystery: no body has been found, and Alison’s condition is proving difficult to diagnose. Alison herself can’t explain what happened: one minute she was fighting with Tori — the next she disintegrated. Into nothing. But that’s impossible. Right?

Read this book immediately if:

  • You like unreliable narrators, like Liar by Justine Larbalestier
  • You loved Girl, Interrupted, either the movie or the book.
  • You loved One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, either the movie or the book.
  • You loved the book A Wrinkle in Time
  • You like tall, gangly, awkward boys/young men. Faraday, a young scientist who begins working with Alison, the main character, is like Calvin O’Keefe to the nth degree: super smart, super sensitive, and super sexy. Also, he has (at least when Alison looks into them) violet eyes.
  • You were ever jealous of that perfect girl in your class that always got everything you ever wanted
  • You’re interested in rare diseases. Alison, the main character, has (among other issues) a condition known as synesthesia, which is a disorder which can cause a person to strongly associate numbers with colors, or perceive sounds as having colors (hence Faraday’s violet eyes).
  • You loved Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlen.
  • You love a wrenchingly romantic final line (which I will not give away here, but damn, that was a good ending).

I was sent a complimentary copy of this book from the great folks at Lerner Books/Carolrhoda lab in return for identifying a reference to a review of Lolita and I am so glad they sent it to me; it’s totally one of my favorite books of the summer.

an open letter to Stephen King

aka Uncle Stevie.

Dear Mr. King,

One cold, dark night in my twelfth year, I had nothing left to read. I’d read through all of my own books, all of my assigned reading for school, and all of my father’s back issues of Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Desperate for a story, I began rummaging through my mother’s bookcase and came across an enormous book in a slip-case, bound in red. It was your novel The Eyes of the Dragon.

I took the book out of its case and saw that one corner had been chewed by something with sharp teeth. (That night I thought that it was part of the book’s design; it wasn’t until years later that I asked my mother about it and she told me our dog, Blackie, had chewed on the package left by the UPS man–shades of Cujo–when it had been delivered.) The illustration I remember most was the one of the mouse hollowed out by the burning poison. The stark, eerily beautiful black and white ink drawings were the perfect complement to that story I found there, and I read early into the morning, loathe to close my eyes and go to sleep.

That was the right book at the right time for me. I didn’t have the best of childhoods–farm life was hard, money was tight, and my parents were both struggling with personal demons–but when I was reading, none of that mattered. And when I was reading that book, that large, heavy book, so full of magic, I felt protected—like it was a shield that would keep me safe from my own life and take me to another world entirely.

I identified most strongly with Thomas. Poor, unloved, fat, manipulated Thomas, who loved the bitter taste of his own heart; Thomas, who tried so hard to do good but was so easily led astray. These lines about Thomas resonated with me deeply when I was young:

Thomas was not exactly a good boy, but you must not think that made him a bad boy. He was sometimes a sad boy, often a confused boy […], and often a jealous boy, but he wasn’t a bad boy.

I felt like Thomas most days. Sad, confused, jealous of my classmates who had normal households and normal parents who were able to hug them and tell them they were loved and take care of them. I watched them as cravenly as Thomas watched his father in his secret moments, wanting what they had, wondering what they had done to deserve such happy, pleasant lives, while I suffered in quiet misery. It was all too easy for me to understand how Thomas could do the things he did…it was all too easy for me to see myself doing such things, if the opportunity presented itself. That book showed me that my feelings didn’t make me a bad person, just a person whose feelings had been badly used.

I eventually read all of your books that my mother had, Mr. King, but that book–and the Dark Tower books*–always remained the most special in my heart, because it was there when I needed it most, and it had been something special belonging to my mother.

After she died in 2007, I often thought of that grand, beautiful copy of The Eyes of the Dragon that I no longer had; it had been lost when our house burned down the year I was fourteen. Instead I re-read my battered paperback copy, and cried for Peter’s and Thomas’ losses as well as my own.

I am writing this letter to thank you, Mr. King. Thank you for writing a story that saved my life. Thank you for all of your many other books that are an unbreakable connection to my past and my mother. Thank you, most of all, for teaching me that people who PEEK at the END of books are not to be trusted.

Sincerely,

Miss Julie

*I waited so patiently for Thomas and Dennis to re-appear in a grand fashion; I will not be one of those beggars who makes demands of Uncle Stevie, but, oh, I am still so very fond of poor, sad Thomas, and fain would know how he fares these days.

Tales of the Madman Underground: a love letter

I fall in love with books the same way I fall in love with people– deeply, unabashedly and without any pretense of dignity. This post is a love letter, and like the gushing of any girl newly in love, it may ramble here and there, but I hope you’ll indulge me.

One book that I fell for, hard, during my youth, is John Barnes’ One For the Morning Glory, an utterly unique fantasy novel that will nevertheless remind readers of The Princess Bride and the Prydain Chronicles. Tales of the Madman Underground is nothing like that book, but I’ve still fallen head over heels for it, which is a testament to Barnes’ versatility and skill as an author.

I will admit that I actually haven’t finished the entire book; it’s a long one, and I’m taking my time with it. You might say that I’m enjoying the early stages of being smitten to the fullest. The novel is very episodic but cohesive, thanks to the strength of the main character’s voice. It’s the story of Karl Shoemaker, a teen with an extremely fucked up home life, and the interconnected tales of other members of the Madman Underground, which is the nickname for a group of teens who attend therapy together during the school day. Karl is a brutally honest narrator who tells his story with black humor and a lot of profanity.

Madman reminded me strongly of The Catcher in the Rye, but while I can’t STAND Holden Caulfield, I would love to have Karl as my secret mentally disturbed high school boyfriend. For teachers who want to explore those classic themes of alienation and teen angst, but can’t stand Holden either, I think Madman would be an excellent substitution or alternative for any curriculum or reading list. The book’s profanity might make it a hard sell in schools, though, which is as shame.

There’s a great scene with a teacher explaining about how to read Huckleberry Finn that I think should become a mandatory introduction during any study of that novel. The teacher, Gratz, says that there are wrong ways to read Huckleberry Finn, one of which is the Hollywood way, which portrays the story as being about “[…] all=American boys on a road trip on a raft (211).” The second wrong way to read it, Gratz says, is as a racist novel:

‘[…T]here is a very important character in the book called Nigger Jim. And because of that fact we will say the word ‘nigger’ pretty often in this class. And when you talk about Jim and the way he is treated, sometimes you’re going to have to say the word ‘nigger.”

‘So understand me. First of all and mot important, we don’t ever call anyone a ‘nigger.’ Not in this class. Not anywhere. When we have to discuss the idea, we always quote the word ‘nigger.’ […] It is okay to say that thus and so is what those very prejudiced white people meant when they said the word ‘nigger,’ and that they meant it about Jim. […]’

‘[…T]o show the evil of racism to anyone, you have to use the words that the racists use. And some groups out there insist that Huckleberry Finn is a racist book, and that a teacher who teaches it must be racist, and even that the students who read it will automatically become racists, all because’–he whispered dramatically–‘it…has…that…word!” (213-14).

I read that passage (which I’ve vastly abbreviated) shortly after the “search and replace” Huckleberry Finn debacle, and I put the book down so I could clap. This is an extremely brave statement to make, and I applaud both the author and the fictional teacher for taking that risk.

We talk a lot about keeping kids safe. We put them in booster seats, we keep them away from plastic bags, we rate our movies, and we bowlderize great fiction for their benefit, because apparently exposure to ideas is equivalent to being thrown through a windshield or choking on a hot dog. But you know what? We can’t keep kids safe. We can try, yes, and we should, but sometimes they need to be exposed to danger. Until I read Don’t Hurt Laurie!, I didn’t know that anyone else knew the pain of being physically abused by someone they loved and who loved them. I didn’t know that help was available. I didn’t know that I was alone, until I found that book, and took solace in it. I read that thing to tatters, and it helped me survive. Some people want to label literature that explores difficult topics as triggering and not think any more about it. In my case, triggering literature may very well have kept me from pulling a trigger.

Not every book is suitable for every reader. While I eagerly seek out and devour tales of the broken, beaten, ravaged and raped, and find solace in accompanying them on their difficult journeys, others may not find comfort in those journeys, and might wish to avoid them. That’s why we have book reviews and blurbs on the back covers, so that readers may make informed choices. That’s why people curate lists on a given topic, to point people in a direction. That’s why most lists have a focus and a theme and criteria to be followed. That’s the sort of list that is useful to readers, and the sort of list that librarians excel at making.

Love is rare enough in this world. We should do all that we can to give the right book to the right reader at the right time, and avoid, at all costs, keeping books from readers, even in the most passive of ways. Without lists, blog posts, and professional reviews, I wouldn’t have found my new favorite book, and my life would be poorer for that.

I’ll end with a short list of  books that have broken my heart, in the best way possible:

  1. Tender Morsels
  2. Deerskin
  3. Blue Plate Special
  4. Jacob Have I Loved