Why Kids Need to Read What They Want

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Is this how we want kids to act when it comes to reading? / flicker, C. Bitner

In the most recent edition of Cover to Cover by K.T. Horning, there are no early childhood, middle grade, or ya distinctions in books for children. Encompassing fiction and nonfiction, the breakdown is:

  • Picture books (including board books)
  • Readers/Beginning Readers/Easy Readers
  • Transitional books
  • Chapter books

That’s it. We have those formats, and within those formats, every genre is covered, for ages birth to teen. (Oh, but wait–where should graphic novels go? I’d include them with chapter books, honestly; the art in a graphic novel serves as a concurrent visual text, in my opinion. Or, heck, let’s put them in with picture books, maybe? I don’t have all the answers, clearly.)

In my ideal, imaginary library, this is how it would be– those formats would be organized, so kids who are being read to can find board and picture books, pre-readers can find the books they need, transitional readers the same, and then chapter books for independent readers who can make their own choices (with guidance from their parent/guardian and, ideally, a librarian). There would be a call number, and no other designations– no guided reading, or any of that other stuff. Just books and excellent staff and seemingly limitless choices. (I’m getting chills just writing about it.)

Does a library like this exist? Probably not. Although my personal library is like this. I’m sure everyone’s personal library is like this. So why do we insist that youth follow dozens of arbitrary guidelines when it comes to the stories they get to read?

Anyway. This summer I tried something different with our suggested reading book lists, in an attempt to create a small scale version of this literary utopia. I wanted to move away from parents just grabbing the list of their child’s grade, and slavishly following those suggestions we’d made, with the best of intentions. Instead of lists covering 2 grade levels, as had been the practice in the past, I had:

  • Pre-readers (babies-Kindergarten): includes board and picture books, all genres
  • Beginning readers (K-3rd): easy/beginning readers, all genres
  • Transitional Third Grade reads: transitional chapter books, all genres
  • Third Grade and Up: picture, beginning, transitional, and chapter books, all genres

Now, there isn’t just one Third Grade and Up list, oh no. There were several, with titles like:

  • Smile Diary: books for Wimpy Kid and Telgameier Fans
  • Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling
  • WONDERing what to read next: Wonder readalikes
  • Full STEAM ahead: books for kids who like to tinker and create
  • Myths, Magic and More: fantasy, science fiction, and the just plain strange
  • Game On: books for gamers
  • Tell Me A Story: books about the magic of storytelling
  • That’s Funny: Books to make you laugh
  • Can You Believe It?: Books to make you see the world in a different way

The books were listed not in alphabetical order, but rather in order of literary and thematic complexity.

To explain, each list had an introduction like this:

3rd Grade and Up

Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling!

If you enjoy scary stories, thrilling tales of true crime, forensic science, and the unexplained, then these books are for you!

Read from the beginning of the list when you’re short on time but still want a good story. Read from the end of the list when you’re up for a more textually and thematically challenging experience.

Not every book on every list will be right for your child. If you have questions about any title, please see [library] staff for guidance.

Third grade and up meant just that: independent readers from third to twelfth grades (or beyond! Mom and Dad, you can read these books too!) could read these books, all of which were chosen from our children’s department collection. I wanted to do this so that an older student who wasn’t reading at grade level wouldn’t be stigmatized by reading from a list that was clearly marked for a younger age. By having only a lower limit, rather than a lower and upper, the list was more open to more readers. And by keeping the selections limited to our children’s department, we were still helping parents make appropriate choices for their child (advocate for freedom that I am, I still want to make things easier for parents, so I’m not going to hand them a third grade and up list with really intense themes and situations).

Oh, and another cool thing–the books on these lists were jointly nominated by my library staff as well as school librarians from our main school district, and they used these lists as their district’s recommended summer reading. How great is that? School librarians got to suggest awesome books that they loved, while I did all the grunt work of collating and organizing them, and our wonderful graphics department made them into beautiful brochures.

Ultimately, I wanted these lists to provide some guidance, while also encouraging kids and parents to use library staff to help them find the  best book for them.

For teens we had 7th grade and up lists, with items exclusively from the teen collection. (Now, ideally I’d want to include picture and other books, but with display and cataloging restraints, this just wasn’t possible; and, again, these teens could also enjoy all the books on the third grade and up lists.)

For teens, our themes were:

  • Social Justice: books about making the world a better place
  • Not Okay: readalikes for The Fault in Our Stars 
  • Get Real: Realistic fiction and memoirs
  • Myths, Magic and More: Fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative fiction

I have to say, the impetus for this project was the book Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want—and Why We Should Let Them. We actually recommended this title to parents in our lists, and amazingly, the book got checked out. How many people actually read it, I don’t know, but it just goes to show that if you make something available, people will take advantage.

I was concerned about confusion and push back–would parents get on board? Would they understand it? Was I creating a problem where there wasn’t one?

I don’t think so. I actually think these lists have been doing what they are meant to do–broaden the scope of what kids read, and providing guidance while also encouraging choice.

Now, summer’s not over, so the verdict isn’t completely in yet, but so far I’m going to call this a success. Books are still getting checked out at a rapid clip, I’ve heard people express delight at the themes, and so far no one has been upset that a book about the Lizzie Borden case was on the “Murder and Mayhem” list (really, with a title like that, I was suspecting parents of sensitive kids would know to steer clear).

What do you think? How do you handle suggested reading/passive reader’s advisory?

 

 

 

 

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Stuck in the Middle With You

I don’t like the term middle grade, even though I love a lot of books that fall under that umbrella. Middle grade books are not for middle schoolers, but the confusing terminology flummoxes a lot of teachers and parents.

If you’re also unclear, here’s the breakdown:

Middle grade= a publishing classification; literature for 8-12 year olds.

Middle school=students in 6th-8th grade, typically. Ages 12-14.

Tweens: pre-adolescents (preadolescene being “a stage of human development following early childhood and preceding adolescence), generally between the ages of 10-13. Blend of “in between” and “teen.” Used as a term for reckless twenty something Hobbits in Tolkien’s books.

Some middle schoolers are tweens, but not all tweens are middle schoolers.

Middle schoolers are more likely to be reading teen books, occasionally enjoying middle grade choices (Wonder and The One and Only Ivan are a couple of MG titles that I know appeal to middle school students).

This is a great article that breaks down the difference between middle grade and young adult books. I particularly like this section:

MG vs. YA Readers
Middle-grade is not synonymous with middle school. Books for the middle-school audience tend to be divided between the MG and YA shelves. So which shelf do those readers go to? While there is no such thing as a ’tween category in bookstores, there are degrees of maturity in both MG and YA novels that’ll appeal to the younger and older sides of the middle-school crowd. A longer, more complex MG novel with characters who are 13 could take place in middle school and be considered an “upper-MG novel.” But the material can’t be too mature. It’s still an MG novel, after all, and most readers will be younger. Writing a sweeter, more innocent YA? Then it’s pretty likely that your readers will be ’tweens, that your characters should be around 15 years old, and that your book will be marketed as a “young YA.”

While it’s useful for you to understand these nuances as you craft your story and relate to your true audience, when it comes time to submit, don’t go so far as to define your novel as upper MG or younger YA in your query. That’s already pointing to a more limited readership. Instead, just stick to calling it either MG or YA when you submit, and let an interested agent draw conclusions about nuances from there.

So here’s my philosophy (which I’ll expound on further and in more detail in an upcoming blog post): I think for children and teens, programs and spaces need to be clearly defined and specifically tailored; baby lapsit is so very different than a teen maker program, and so it goes for every developmental stage in between. What youth needs socially, emotionally, and physically varies greatly as they grow.

However, in terms of your collection (and here I am only concerned with what they’re reading), once a kid reaches about third grade and is an independent reader, I think things should be much more open.

What do I mean? Well, first of all, stop labeling your books. No more E for easy on the picture books, or J for juvenile, or any of that. You just have fiction and nonfiction in a variety of formats. Board books, beginning readers, and transitional books are pulled out, because those are very tailored to their audience for developmental reasons. The rest? All one big pile.* Picture books through chapter books, arranged by genre, perhaps. But no other labels. Have a kids’ collection that goes up to, say, sixth grade, and then a teen collection that’s 7th grade and up. But both collections include picture books.

Is this practical? Probably not. Would any library dare do this? Probably not. Is it a better way to organize literature and resources for youth? I believe so.

Stay tuned for another post about this idea of “reading unbound.” In the mean time, read more about  those tricky tweens and how to serve them.

The Trouble with Tweens

Tweens, teens, and twentysomethings: a history of words for young people

What do Tweens Want? 

Teen/Tween Spaces

Teen Space Guidelines (does there need to be one for Tweens?)

Sign up for SLJ’s “Be Tween” newsletter.

*an organized, and definitely not literal, pile.

Talk the Talk

Talk the Talk: The Art of Booktalking to Young Adults

Whether you’re talking to a single 12-year-old or an entire classroom of high school seniors, an effective and engaging booktalk can be a challenge. Learn best practices for presenting to young adults and how to find your finest booktalking voice. Try your hand at constructing an impromptu book talk of your very own, and leave the session with greater booktalking prowess for talking up some great reads to teens.

In October at the Illinois Library Association conference, I had the honor and the pleasure to collaborate with Alice, Katie, and Mike to talk about one of my favorite job duties: book talking to teens.

For the first seven years of my library career, I didn’t get to book talk, even during my brief tenure as a teen librarian. I was primarily an early literacy librarian, so I spent all my time reading picture books, crafting story times and other programs for young children, and occasionally doing reader’s advisory for teens on the reference desk.

So when I switched jobs in 2012, one of the things I most looked forward to was the chance to book talk, something I’d scarcely learned about in library school.

Being excited did not equal being prepared, however. I will admit, some of my first solo book talks were TERRIBLE. I talked for too long, I wasn’t familiar enough with the books (or I was talking books I wasn’t excited about), and I was talking solo. Over the last three years I’ve learned a lot through trial and error, so when Alice asked me to collaborate with her on a presentation about book talking, I was eager to share my own hard earned knowledge, and that of my collaborators as well.

While this blog post can’t replicate the awesomeness of our ILA presentation, I hope to cover some of the main points for those who attended, as well as lay it out for those of you who are just reading the post.

Who
While normally I am great at working alone–and prefer it–when it comes to book talking, I definitely want to be part of a duo at the very least. (Recently I had a book talk with four different staff members on hand, and it was amazing). When it comes to book talks, there is power in numbers, and I now do my best to avoid solo book talks that are longer than one class period.

Why talk as a team?

  1. Variety, of books and voices. We don’t all love the same books, or talk them in the same way, so students benefit from hearing a realistic fiction fan and a sci-fi fan during the same book talk session.
  2. Endurance. For my schools, it’s often easiest to schedule us to see an entire grade during one day, so having more book talkers on hand guarantees that you can get through six hours of book talks without losing your voice or your mind.
  3. Fun. With a team book talk, you can go from being a solo act to being the Smothers Brothers or Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. It’s nice to have another person to riff off of and look to, and it makes your book talks more diverse and dynamic.

Where to talk
Does anyone just, like, hold book talk programs in the library that teens will come to? I think this is probably a rarity, so most of the time I’m guessing you’re going to be book talking in a school to a class or a set of classes.

My ideal situation is book talking to one or two classes in a group, in a larger space such as the library media center or common area. I’ve grown to like having a few tables at the front where I can display my books covers out.

I also take out a mobile circulation station (laptop, hot spot, scanner) which I set up away from the book talk area, so teens can check out books they are excited about ON THE SPOT. This has changed the game when it comes to book talks– no more handing out lists and hoping they’ll come to the library to check something out, nope, if they want it they get it. (This means the number of books you bring is radically different, which I will address in the next step).

What to talk
Ideally, you’ll talk books that you have 1) read and 2) are really, really excited about. However, none of us live or work in an ideal world (if you do, you’re a lucky duck!), so sometimes we’ll have to book talk on an assigned theme, or we’ll accept a last minute book talking request and we won’t have enough new books read to fill the request, so we’ll have to fake it.

If you’re trying to talk books you haven’t read, the team and I had a few strategies to share:

  1. Read a LOT of reviews. Certain reviewers are better at indicating potential readers than others, so once you figure out those reviewers, turn to them first. Bookshelves of Doom is great for Fantasy/Horror, and Stacked is great for realistic fiction and fantasy/sci-fi. I also turn to common sense media quite a bit so I can be more certain of the content of thornier books, especially when I’m talking to sixth graders.
  2. Observe your fellow book talkers. This is another pro of talking in teams. There are some books I still haven’t read, but I’ve heard my colleagues talk about them enough that I’ve memorized their talks.
  3. Admit it! I’ve taken out a few books based solely on their covers and blurbs, so I admit this to the kids. “I haven’t had time to read this one, but it has a rabid squirrel on the cover, so I was pretty sure someone would want to read it.”

Remember the mobile circulation station I mentioned? This affects how many books we bring. We try to bring multiple copies of as many books as possible, so we can repeat book talks throughout the day. This reduces the number of unique book talks we need to prepare and present, and the physical number of books that we have to take out to a school. Each book talker generally brings out two to three large tote bags full of books, and we usually take back one or two tote bags of books that didn’t get checked out.

How to talk
The right way to  book talk is the way you feel comfortable, excited, and enthusiastic. Everything else is up to your personal preferences and strengths.

I will say this– if you’re able to take a stand up comedy class (seriously!) or another kind of live literature or storytelling class, this could improve your book talks immensely. Because really, what is a book talk other than a story about a story? And while you don’t have to be a laugh riot, the ability to land a joke can go a long way in making your book talks more enjoyable for your audience (don’t forget the teachers in the back!).

My style involves a lot of personal anecdotes. Teens are fascinated by personal narratives and making yourself even the tiniest bit vulnerable can have a huge impact on how they perceive you.

Why
Why do we book talk? To get teens to read, yes. To circulate books, yes. Book talking was created by teen librarians for teens because even in the 1920s, teens who could read were choosing not to, for many reasons. Very noble goals, and goals I try to achieve with my book talks.

I also see book talks as a way of developing relationships– with the teens, with their teachers, with the school librarians, with their school, with your coworkers. Even if teens don’t care for any of the books you talk during a particular session, with any luck they’ll realize you know a lot about books, and might come seek you out to help them find what they want to read.

So that’s the Hi, Miss Julie guide to book talking! Thanks for reading.

Read More About It!

Everyone’s favorite, wikipedia

How Did YA Become YA? (includes why book talking was created for teens)

A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy book talks

YS Wikispaces Booktalking

Randomhouse Booktalking 

We Need Diverse Books Booktalking Kit

author, author!

The past couple of conferences I went to, there was some chatter about author visits at libraries—namely, how do you get anyone to care about and come to your author event? (I’m assuming here you’ve found the money already. Top notch authors are almost always going to be quite expensive, so start budgeting now and looking for financial partners. Also, start locally if you’ve never done an author visit before. Cutting down on travel costs cuts the budget significantly). I’ve done a few author events at my library, and seen other well done events in action, so I thought I would share some of my hard earned wisdom with you, my dear and lovely readers.

1) Choose your author wisely.
Not every great book has an author worth visiting with. Harsh, but true. When selecting an author to bring to your community, you need to consider reputation, charisma, and speaking skills just as much as you consider the quality and appeal of the author’s work. People have already spent time with the book(s). You want to get them excited about spending time with a person. When choosing an author, make sure to….

2) Consider your audience.
Think about who your author writes for– lower elementary, upper elementary, middle school, or teen. Sometimes there is overlap. Andrea Beaty has both picture books and chapter books, and is great for Prek-5th presentations. Adam Selzer has middle grade, middle school, and upper YA novels, as well as adult nonfiction about Chicago history and hauntings that appeal to teens /and/ adults. You really want to target your audience, because this will tie in so much to your promotion of the event. You can have an author present for more than one audience, but make sure those events are clearly delineated. Also, think about your community– is it conservative? Artistic? Older? Younger? Make sure you have a population that will be interested in the person you’re bringing in.

3) Promote.
This seems like a “duh” moment but it’s very important. It’s not enough to put a few lines in your newsletter or a picture on your webpage. You need to hustle. This is not a drill, people. Most authors worth having are going to be expensive, and you want to make the turn out worth everyone’s while. So target your audience. For me, I hit the middle schools–and I mean hit. At the two middle schools in our main district, I physically went to the school and presented a 15 minute, high impact promotion about the author to as many kids as I could. (At one school, I managed to see every student during the day; I was on my feet from 8-3 and it was amazing.) I’ll talk more about my specific promotion strategies at the end.

4) Get a bookseller.
If everyone’s done their job, there will be a hunger for your author’s work, and people will want to get their copies signed and maybe even take a picture. Also, you want your authors to make money so they can keep writing books. Partnering with a local, indie bookseller is imperative. Further, booksellers often have insider knowledge about when and where certain authors will be touring– if you form a strong partnership, oftentimes a bookseller can get you free author appearances for your library. They are more likely to do this for you if you have a record of bringing out good crowds for events, which you will if you follow these guidelines.

5) Make the event an EVENT.
You’re essentially throwing a party, so throw a damn party. Have a cake decorated to look like the book cover. If there’s a special or unique food mentioned in the book(s), serve it. Decorate. Have music that relates to the tone of the book playing before the start. Make sure to introduce your author with appropriate excitement and pomp. Hype everyone up. Throw your hands in the air. Whatever you have to do, do it. Bust out your best Neil Patrick Harris hosting the Tonys here, because that’s what it deserves.

Let’s walk through an example of an author visit that I worked on.

ADAM GIDWITZ!

860661_515247835185202_1408791629_o1) Choose your author wisely.
Adam’s visit to my library and local schools was already in the works when I began my job last fall, but I quickly jumped in and started implementing my master plan. Adam is a perfect visiting author. He is energetic, engaging, interesting, and an excellent performer. His books–A Tale Dark and Grimm, In A Glass Grimmly, and The Grimm Conclusion–are excellent and have high appeal factors for a wide variety of readers. Adam was also extremely gracious and easy to work with, providing me and my coworkers with lots of information we could use to promote his visit– including making a short video just for our middle schoolers.

2) Consider your audience.
From working with the schools and the school staff, we knew the personalities we were dealing with, and we knew that plenty of kids would be excited about seeing Adam. Word of mouth about his books spread quickly as kids talked it up to each other. We also knew the fairy tale element–fairy tales being one of the text types in the new Common Core State Standards–would lend the presentation a whiff of educmacational value, which doesn’t hurt when talking a program up to parents.

3) Promote.
I’m lucky to have a great marketing department to work with, so they did a wonderful job of getting this event in the newsletter, on the website, and in the community (including a local newspaper blurb!) As the School Outreach Librarian, it was then my job to TAKE IT TO THE SCHOOLS. This is one of my favorite parts of the process, and while I’ve found a formula that works for me, be aware that your mileage may vary. Like any creative, personality driven library presentation you need to promote in a way that makes sense for your style, especially if you’re working with kids. You need to be genuine and genuinely enthusiastic. If you’re not, your promotion will fall flat, and no excitement will be generated.

My promotion formula is based largely on the author, as illustrated by this mostly gratuitous pie chart:

piechartStart off with a quick, punchy book talk about the author’s works. I talked up Adam’s two novels (this was before the third one was released) and also showed an awesome book trailer in German, because everything sounds more awesome in German. Then, I segued into talking about Adam as a person and an author. I gave a brief biographical sketch, including–and this is important—pictures of Adam when he was the same as the teens I was promoting the event to.

I cannot state enough how cool this is. Even the most jaded eighth grader will guffaw when shown a picture of someone in their youth. Suddenly the teens can relate just a little bit easier to this person, just by seeing their dork-tastic 90’s hair and braces. Contrast this with a picture of what the author currently looks like, just so the kids know who they will actually be seeing at the event.

Also: food. Most people are into food and get excited about it. I ask authors their favorite foods then and now. Adam’s answer for his current favorite food was blood pie. I used this heavily in my promotion. “WHAT is a BLOOD PIE?” I asked dramatically. “You’ll have to come to the event to FIND OUT. Because we will be SERVING one.” Cue 45 middle schoolers groaning excitedly about BLOOD.

All of my presentations were about 15 minutes (yep, only 15 minutes). I wanted my message to be brief and intense. Between the BLOOD PIE and Adam’s middle school picture, and a gory 3 minute retelling of Cinderella, the teens were left with strong images and a strong incentive to attend the event. You can see my keynote slides here: gidwitz copy

4) Get a bookseller.
The bookseller we brought in sold out of paperbacks and sold almost all of the rest of the stock he brought with him. This made everyone happy.

4) Make the event an EVENT.
Our attendance exceeded expectations. We were hoping for around forty five people but had over one hundred kids and teens  held in thrall by Adam’s presentation, which included a full telling of the fairytale “The Juniper Tree.” As promised, we served BLOOD PIE (berry pie with no top crust). No one was more surprised and delighted by this than Adam. “Wow. That was just something I made up,” he said. That’s me…the person who makes dreams come true. Especially when they involve BLOOD. We also had cookies decorated to look like the cover of Adam’s book. They were so gorgeous, one girl just held her cookie, crying that it was too beautiful to eat. IMG_0400 IMG_0402Not mandatory, but forcing your author to pose by the food can’t hurt. You can see the BLOOD PIE to the left (to the left, all the blood pie is on the table to the left). We also had BLOOD PUNCH because BLOOD. BLOOD YOU GUYS. This entire post could have just been the word BLOOD.

So that’s how I (and my awesome coworkers) achieved author visit success. What about you?

Book Talkin’

(You need to sing the title of this post to the tune of “Jive Talkin'”)

via the new york city public library's flickr page
via the new york city public library’s flickr page

As the school year draws rapidly to a close (seriously, where did it go?) I’ve been reflecting on my first year as a school outreach librarian. I can’t tell you how invigorating it has been to use different skills and get to try new things with a wide variety of audiences. One of my favorite programs this year was all of the booktalks I did for middle schoolers (6th-8th grade) and teachers. In my previous six years as a librarian, I had done very few book talks. It was something I really wanted to do, but it just never happened in previous positions.

I was extremely lucky that I started out this school year being invited to book talk first to two groups of teachers, one elementary and one middle school. After getting to see me and my colleague book talk, teachers had a sense of who I was, how I behaved, and liked me enough to want to have me get up in front of their students. This was a great break for me, and once one class had me and my coworker in, all of the rest of them wanted us, too.

This year I averaged about two book talks a month, usually spending an entire school day (8 a.m.-2 p.m.) talking to multiple classes. Often I was solo, but several times I was lucky enough to be joined by members of our teen staff. While I can do these book talks alone, six hours of booktalking is a long time, and even with a partner I’m exhausted by the end of the day. I vastly prefer booktalking as a team for two major reasons (other than the fact that it helps to save your voice):

1) Variety. With two readers sharing books, the kids will get a wider variety than from one person alone. While I am very careful to select a variety of books, there are certain genres and topics I just can’t muster much enthusiasm for. I can fake it, sure, but why do that when a coworker is just nuts about the books I’m lukewarm about? While I’m pretty good at selling any book, kids can tell the difference between my genuine enthusiasm and the enthusiasm I put on for their sake.

2) Attachment Librarianing. This is something I carried over from my preschool teaching days, and I think it really applies to librarianship. Kids and teens are all unique, and not every personality is going to have a great fit with every kid or teen out there. For example, I quickly bond with shy, nerdy, awkward kids and teens (I try to find the Whovians in every middle school class as fast as I can). Other kids like me just fine, and I can and love to help everyone, but the geeky kids are more likely to seek me out and will get better recommendations from me, just because we’re so simpatico. With more staff available, more kids are likely to find the librarian whose style and personality speaks to them, which equals better service.

For me, booktalks are a lot like storytimes for older kids. While I don’t reveal endings or major plot points when I book talk, I do tell a story to get kids invested and interested. A lot of times I will use the theme of a novel or a hook from a nonfiction title to riff for a while. Just call me the wholesome Richard Pryor of librarianship. For example, when I booktalk Fourmile by Watt Key, I spend a lot of time talking with kids about PTSD, the stigma of mental illness in our culture, how we treat our soldiers, and why so many books for kids feature dead dogs (seriously!). When I talk about Almost Astronauts, I tell them the anecdote about Jerrie Cobb shattering all isolation booth records (NINE HOURS AND FORTY MINUTES Y’ALL), yet never getting the chance to be an astronaut. From there, I talk a bit about how women are seen in our culture and how we are treated.

My style is a little unconventional, I suppose, but it works for me, and it works for many of the kids I booktalk to. And that’s the important thing, I think–is to find your own personal style, your voice. That’s what will make your book talks exciting and get the kids interested in reading the books you’re pushing.

And what books do I push? It depends. If a teacher is working on a genre study, I’ll bring titles in that genre. Often I like to do a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, new books and backlist. I try to have books at a wide variety of reading levels with a variety of appeal factors. Most of all, I strive to bring books that I’ve read completely and have a component that I am super, super excited about. Even if I didn’t personally love the book, if there’s a crazy character or fascinating setting that I can see kids being interested in, I’ll definitely book talk that sucker.

So that’s just a little bit about my new favorite professional responsibility. What about you–do you book talk? What’s your style? Any favorite titles?

reader feed round-up

Here’s some blogs that I’ve been enjoying recently:

  • Teacher Tom, a blog about early childhood and how kids learn and explore.
  • Maria’s Movers, a very niche blog about incorporating literacy in movement and vice-versa; a great resource for anyone who presents a program similar to my Mini Movers. Found via someone’s blog…I can’t remember, I read so many! But thanks!
  • Storytiming, a storytime-focused blog.
  • Ask A Manager, a great resource for manager/HR/job seeking/job retention type questions.
  • Judging a Book by Its Cover: just that, John looks at a book cover and guesses what the story will be about. “Dedicated to the unfortunate practice of judging books by their covers. A fresh look at Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror and Urban Fantasy book covers.”
  • New Cover: Matt reads a book, then recovers it. Beautiful work. Reminds me of Travis’s recovering the Newbery project.
  • The Hairpin. Reminds me of old school Jezebel, Sassy in its heyday, and if ForeverYoungAdult applied its brand of critique to the wider world.

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.

hark! an arc!

I’ve come into possession of several ARCs recently, and normally I don’t give a frak about that kind of thing, and book-bragging fills me with an inexplicable rage, but I really have liked these books so Imma gonna tell you about ’em. However, I don’t do synopses because they bore me, that’s what we have goodreads and amazon.com for.

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson, due September 2011.

My lovely coworker Miss Stephanie nabbed this at BEA, and Maureen Johnson signed it, along with the poignant inscription of Pizza. Judging by the cover, I thought a red haired girl went back in time and met Jack the Ripper, who ended up being sexy like Chuck Bass, and I was hella excited. While the book was nothing like that, I still enjoyed it. It reminded me a lot of Torchwood, in the best way. A++ would read again.

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein, by Kenneth Oppel, due August 2011.

I got this by filling out a form through a website that I can’t even remember now, but I am glad I went into a fugue state and did so, because this novel is pretty well written, and it allows me to imagine young Victor and Konrad Frankenstein as played by Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve only read the first quarter or so thus far but I am enjoying it immensely because, hello,”it’s my Cumberbatch imagination, running away with me…

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, due August 2011

I was introduced to Jonathan Auxier at the Newbery/Wilder/Caldecott banquet at ALA 2011 while I was traipsing about with James Kennedy. And by introduced I mean that James suddenly froze, sniffed the air, yelled “SCOP!” and bolted in the direction of a tall hairy man in the distance. When I finally caught up to the both of them, Jonathan (I discovered his name by reading his name-tag, because, unlike most librarians, I am thoroughly and utterly LITERATE),  was deftly juggling James’ collection of pocket kittens while James took painstaking and quite intimate measurements of the depth, width, and color of Jonathan’s beard. James dictated these measurements to me and I copied them down, because 1) his handwriting is atrocious and 2) like I mentioned before, I am a literate librarian and must show off at every opportunity. After this auspicious meeting, I sent Mr. Auxier a message on twitter asking for an autographed beard photo and was sent a copy of his book instead, which in the grand scheme of things is a-okay with me.

If you’re a fan of James Kennedy’s writing (which I am) I have a hunch you’ll enjoy Auxier’s book (an excerpt of which you can read here, and a Fuse#8 review of which you can read here). I myself have not yet begun to read, because once I begin I am sure I will quickly read it through until the end, whereupon I am sure I shall be sad, because you can never have the first read of a book again once you’ve done it, and there’s nothing quite like that first breathless romp through a truly wonderful book. Which is what I believe Peter Nimble to be, for a little Betsy Bird has told me that there will be Peter Pan references abound, and the only thing I love more than Peter Pan references are Alice in Wonderland references, and since Auxier’s line drawings are strongly reminiscent of Tenniel’s work (as well as a little Gorey and a little Blake for good measure), I am quite confident I will be satisfied on all counts.

The other reason I haven’t read it yet is because James told me that every tenth copy is infused with fairy dust, and since I will be ever so happy while reading this book, once the fairy dust hits me I will most assuredly begin flying about, and since I am in the middle of summer reading right now and don’t really have the time to go flying about, I must postpone my reading until I am sure I will have flying time to spare, which will be soon, I hope.

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