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


I have a guest post up over at Librarian by Day, about one of my favorite backlist/crossover titles, My Sister The Moon, by Sue Harrison. I got into Sue Harrison’s books after I read Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear/Earth’s Children series (which is FINALLY coming to an end in 2011, thank jeebus) and have found that Harrison’s work stands the test of time much better than Auel’s. I re-read all of the Earth’s Children books recently, in anticipation of the final volume in the series, and, wow, Auel has created an obnoxious character in Ayla, the preternaturally perfect prehistoric heroine.

For those of you who’ve read the Twilight books, do you remember how Bella, when she became a vampire, was, like the BEST VAMPIRE THAT EVAR VAMPIRED? Well, that’s Ayla–except she’s not a vampire, she’s just the mother of invention. Some of Ayla’s discoveries/inventions include:

1. Fire

2. Taming a wolf

3. How conception works

4. Birth control

5. Taming and riding horses

6. Making casts for broken bones

7. Seeing through time, i.e., tripping balls

8. Taming a cave lion

9. Awesome hangover cure

Also, she’s tall and blond and thin and blue-eyed, which is apparently the beauty ideal in prehistoric times even though the prominent female idol is the chubby Venus of Willendorf. Everything Ayla does is super-sexy, super-mysterious, and super-perfect. Everyone loves her eventually, even if they are initially repulsed by her adopted family (who are insultingly referred to as Flatheads by the Neanderthals).

I actually think Twilight fans would actually really, really love these books. The quality of writing is similar and the main characters are similarly self-deprecating yet strangely irresistible to everyone she comes into contact with. ALSO, WAY before Renesme was hideously coined, Ayla named her baby Jonayla, which is a combo of her name, Ayla, and her mate’s, Jondalar, because she wanted the name to reflect how the baby was a mixture of both of them. In The Mammoth Hunters, there is also a love triangle that is WAY more frustrating than Twilight‘s ever was. I mean, Ayla actually dumps the guy on the day of their wedding to run off with Jondalar. That’s way colder than anything Bella did, I think.

These books are also great for post-Twilight teens because of their wholesome yet astoundingly descriptive sex scenes. Nothing lurid, but there are lots of body parts described in Harlequin romance type vocabulary, and you get a sexy scene approximately every twenty pages, which is a pretty good ratio. From the wikipedia entry: “The author’s treatment of unconventional sexual practices (which are central to her hypothesized nature-centered religions) has earned the series the twentieth place on the American Library Association‘s 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000.” Now THAT’S a stamp of approval when it comes to sexy content, amirite?

If you like books that are so vexing that you actually yell at the book, OUT LOUD, yet you still have to keep reading because you just HAVE TO KNOW what happens, then I highly recommend the Earth’s Children books. Has anyone else read these and know what I’m talking about? Please let me know in the comments, I’d love to get a good discussion going.

we don’t need you, either.

The Summer Reading program. It is the event  that youth librarians spend almost their entire year either preparing for or recovering from. Children and parents descend, en masse, worked up into a froth of excitement from the promotional tour–books were booktalked, prizes were displayed and demonstrated, and the joy and pleasure of the program were hyped to the extreme.

Summer Reading, in my opinion, should be about the joy of reading, with the bonus of getting tacky plastic crap in return. I hope most libraries also give away books; in most programs I’ve worked in, that is the final prize. I also see Summer Reading as a time for kids to experience the freedom to read what they want. No AR tests, no quizzes, just–read. Enjoy a story, or a set of facts, or a recipe. Listen to an audiobook, or idly flip through a magazine. Read a video-game guide while you play your current favorite game (and people who think gamers don’t read, have you seen the super-thick game guides that are out there? Lots of text, and pretty complex directions to follow as well. So, shut it, people who claim video games are anti-literate; between the guides and the story inherent in most games, gamers are incredibly literate.)

I’ve recently heard a sad tale of a library that restricts teens to reading only YA titles for their summer reading. That sounds so nonthreatening, right? But it isn’t. It’s step one down the slippery slope of restricting access to materials. What if a teen doesn’t want to read YA books, and prefers adult books? Stephen King and Dean Koontz are popular with teens, as is Jodi Picoult and Nicholas Sparks and his LOVE stories (don’t call them romances). Tough sh*t, guys; you’re gonna read what the librarian tells you to read. And don’t forget, when adding up your totals, 2+2=5.

This library also denies teens the ability to check out movies based on rating. Even a 17 year old, who could see an R rated movie in the theater, can’t check out an R rated film from the library, because if you’re 17, you have a card that is color coded to indicate that your access is restricted.

This, my dear friends, is censorship. It is acting in loco parentis, which is frankly not the librarian’s job.

I hate these policies, and all too often teens are the ones suffering the most. Why can’t teenagers get a break?

Thinking about this stuff just makes me feel so sad and tired. Does anyone have any stories about awesome libraries that go out of their way to defend the rights of minors to access information?

we don’t need you.

This post breaks my heart. It also makes me want to yell at the librarians that Brent mentioned. Not only are they bad people, they are bad librarians, unethical, piece of sh*t librarians who need to find a different profession immediately, preferably nowhere near books or children.

A brief summary: Brent is a gay teen who loves reading about kids like himself. Shocking, I know. When he ran out of books to read, he turned to his libraries–first his school library, then his public library. This is how his school librarian treated him:

When I set out to find more LGBT titles, I turned to my school’s library. Honestly? It was pathetic. There was not one single LGBT novel. But oh, of course the librarian went out of her way to buy books about gangs, drugs, and teen pregnancy. […] When I asked her about it, she replied, “This is a school library. If you are looking to read inappropriate titles, go to a book store.” Uhm, how in the hell is LGBT YA lit “inappropriate”?

His public librarian didn’t fare much better.

In case you were wondering, Brent, as a gay male, is not inappropriate, nor are his tastes in reading. That school librarian is inappropriate and needs to find another profession. Her response  indicates a blatant ignorance of and disregard for the ALA Code of Ethics*, the Freedom to Read Statement and YALSA’s Competencies for Librarians Serving Youth. Granted, these are not iron-clad, binding documents, but they are the standard guides for ethical behavior and good service for the profession.

We librarians love to talk about how important we are, how the work we do is so valuable, and how our roles in the current culture are vital; yet how often do we talk about the trash that exists in the library world? The incompetent, the vile, the lazy, the downright dangerous?

We need to stop being nice. We need to stop making excuses. We need to start having some ethical courage when it comes to the crap that some of our colleagues pull. It is hard. You will be branded a troublemaker. You will be told not to make waves. You will be told that censorship is an awfully strong word. But, you know, sometimes it is an accurate word, and we need to use it.

Please don’t let people get away with doing this to kids, especially the most vulnerable kids. The catchphrase of “If you see something, say something” doesn’t just have to apply to unattended luggage, packages, and odd behavior; call out your coworkers who are being unprofessional, reputation damaging jerks.

No one deserves to be treated the way this kid was treated. Don’t be an accessory to this kind of thing. If you are, and I find out, I’ll yell at you, too.

*We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources. (ALA Code of Ethics).

ETA: Here’s another post on the same topic by the Ya Ya Yas.

free willys.

I just finished reading a coworker’s arc of Will Grayson, Will Grayson. It is extremely hard to not accidentally type Willy when I try to type that repetitive title. Then I am reminded of my co-worker who is eagerly awaiting the release of Free Willy: Willy vs. The Gorton’s Fisherman. Or whatever it is called.

Anyway. Will Grayson, Will Grayson is a lovely book. I enjoyed reading about a fat character who wasn’t ashamed to be fat (even though he recognized that society thought he should be) and who was, in fact, a sex object. Yes, sometimes people become more physically attractive when we’re ensnared by the sheer force of their personality. I don’t think I’ve seen a strong example of this since The Phantom of the Opera.*

I also liked the platonic love story, which, according to the authors’ notes, was a major theme. I didn’t learn how to acknowledge this love until I was well into my twenties, so having all of these recent examples aimed at teenagers is a good thing, I think. Maybe if we all realized that love can occur without romance, we’d all feel a bit happier with ourselves and our lives.

Along with How to Say Goodbye In Robot, Dramarama, and Sweethearts, this book is a welcome addition to the platonic romance genre, which I have JUST NOW ushered into being.**

*I’m sure there are others, but I can’t think of them right now.

**Please don’t burst my inflated sense of power and self-importance, it is all I have right now.

gate hate.

I was fairly late to the twitter game. I didn’t really see much value in it, until I discovered that I could spend most of my time following people and not worry about creating my own content. Now I spend my twitter time enjoying the jarosity of Maureen Johnson and the pictures of food from around the world that Roger Ebert twitpics.

I also find value in the twitter chats such as kidlitchat and yalitchat. The majority of chatters (I believe) are writers of kid and ya lit, along with a smattering of readers and bloggers. I am not sure how many of the chatters are librarians. Sometimes I feel like the only one, but I know I am not.

Occasionally, in the midst of the chatting, a comment will be made about librarians. The comments I notice the most, and try to respond to without getting angry, are the ones that imply librarians have a mission to keep books away from readers instead of giving books to them.*

Librarians love authors and the books they write. If a librarian loves your book, s/he will do everything s/he can to put it in the hands of readers. If those readers love your book, chances are good they will want to buy their own copy. This, I understand, is good for authors. You want people to buy your books, right? So do librarians. We buy as many copies as we can justify. Sometimes the demand is there because of pop culture forces beyond our control or ken; other times, we create that demand by being passionate about books and telling everyone we know to READ THIS BOOK.

This is why I get especially sad and upset when I see authors making comments such as:

Kids may not mind swears, but it’s their parents and librarians who will prob. buy most of the books.

This is a brief comment, tossed out casually, but its implications are vast. It implies that librarians will choose not to buy a book because of its content, regardless of quality (so, most librarians wouldn’t stock Ulysses, I suppose). It implies that librarians are censors. It implies that we are arbiters of taste who only buy books we like. It implies that we cower in fear every time we come across a swear or a nonheteronormative character, because we fear the wrath of a mob of angry parents. This is not true. I will repeat: this is NOT TRUE. Let me present to you one of the articles of the Freedom to Read Statement:

There is no place in our society for efforts to coerce the taste of others, to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents, or to inhibit the efforts of writers to achieve artistic expression.

Okay, so that second clause, “to confine adults to the reading matter deemed suitable for adolescents”, is a little weird, but what it essentially means is: it’s not our job to tell fourteen year old Johnny he can’t read Stephen King. That last clause, though! Look at that! It’s not our job “to inhibit the efforts of writers to achieve artistic expression.” What does that mean? It means, don’t worry about that sex scene or that swear word or that depiction of violence in your book. If it serves the story, if it serves your art, DO IT. A good, honest, ethical librarian will never not  buy a book because of those elements. Will we give the book with the graphic sex scene to every reader? No. Hell no. You give books to readers based on their tastes. You ask, What books have you read recently that you liked? That you didn’t like? What did you like about that book–the characters? The plot? The writing? We suss out what they enjoyed, and we try to match them with something similar.

So if a girl tells me she’s recently read and enjoyed It by Stephen King and Boy-Toy by Barry Lyga, I’d probably suggest she read Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan and Deerskin by Robin McKinley. If she’d told me she loved Nancy Drew and the Princess Diaries, would I still suggest Tender Morsels and Deerskin? Uh, no. I’d have to work a little harder to find books for her, since I don’t read much in that area, but there are tools I can use–Novelist gives out lists of read-alikes, and one can also use goodreads and librarything to find similiar books. I can ask coworkers. I can figure it out. I want to give her books she will enjoy reading just as much as I want the other girl to have books she will enjoy.

Librarians serve the public, and the public is diverse and varied with different tastes, needs and wants. I need to have books (and DVDs and CDs…) that will appeal to goths, to Christians, to Muslims, to struggling readers, to geeks, to skateboarders and knitters…and on and on and on. So I’ll need some books with sex, with swears, with violence and abuse; I’ll need some books with kittens and puppies and unicorns who poop marshmallows; I’ll need some books with romance but no sex.

Where will I get those books? Why, from authors! So, authors, follow your guts and write what they tell you to write, whether that is cozy mysteries full of tea-times and gentle jokes, historical war fiction full of blood and guts, or sex comedies full of scatalogical humor. Because out here in the world, there is a reader for every book, and unless you write that book, that reader will be very sad indeed.

Instead of thinking, “Golly, I’d better not write about gerbil rodeos  because some gerbil rodeo hating LIBRARIAN will get her bun in a twist and censor my book,” think, “I AM SO HAPPY that there are librarians out there who will find the person for me who wants to read my great American novel about gerbil rodeos.”

I will say it one more time, just to be clear: Authors should NEVER censor themselves because they think librarians, and to a lesser extent, teachers, will censor their books. Good librarians do not do that. Some, sadly, do, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Librarians are your friends, and if we are passionate about what you write, no matter the content or genre, we will do our damnedest to get it into the hands of someone who will love it. We buy for our public, not for ourselves (okay, occasionally for ourselves, but we make sure to have a balance).


your librarian,

Miss Julie

*Many authors know the value of librarians and love them accordingly. One bit of  evidence:

You know, I love librarians. I really love librarians. I love librarians when they crusade not to be stereotyped as librarians. I love librarians when they’re just doing those magic things that librarians do. I love librarians when they’re the only person in a ghost town looking after thousands of books. I love the ALA and am proud to be on one of their posters. —Neil Gaiman

(You should go read the whole post, because he goes on to criticize the ALA president, which is kind of neat).

how to say goodbye in robot.

I’m really horrible about reviews. Unless I really feel like blathering on about a book, I usually just read it and then move on, filing it away in my goodreads so I can refer to it if I’m doing some tricky reader’s advisory.

I don’t want to criticize books. I think books need to be reviewed in the context of whether or not the author achieved his or her purpose. I don’t really want to get into good vs. bad writing and the mechanics of both.* If a book is badly written but you still enjoy it, then the book has served its purpose (remember, every book its reader, every reader his or her book, and the right book at the right time**).

Anyway. I looked up  How to Say Goodbye in Robot because I liked the cover image and I like robots. I quickly discovered that the book isn’t actually about robots, but I read it anyway. I read it awhile ago, so I can’t be very detailed (you can see a synopsis at the link), but my strongest impression is that I loved reading a book where the primary relationship between a teenage boy and girl wasn’t romantic.

This is very personal to me. In my life many of my closest relationships have been like Bea and Jonah’s—intense, intimate, passionate, but not sexual in anyway. Agape love, perhaps? I think this sort of love and attachment is common for teenagers–many friendships between teenage girls resemble passionate affairs without any truly sexual contact–but you wouldn’t really know that from surveying the literature.

I really enjoyed reading Standiford’s book, and I would give it to any reader who wanted a platonic love story.

Reviewed from library copy.

* Author Justine Larbalestier has an interesting discussion about this topic going on over at her blog. If you’re interested, I suggest reading those posts and comments.

**Does anyone know the origin of “the right book at the right time”?


Leviathan has been one of my favorite words ever since I read Moby Dick in college. It was even in the title of one of the best episodes ever of Deadwood (“The Leviathan Smiles“).

The Leviathan in Scott Westerfeld’s book of the same name is less sinister than those two examples, but no less interesting. To save myself valuable summary time, here is the (awesome) book trailer:

The excellent ReaderGirlz blog has an amazing array of Leviathan content at the moment, so I suggest you spend some time over there. As for myself, all I can really add to the conversation is that I really enjoyed reading this book, I’m pleased to see steampunk making an entry into the YA canon, and I can’t wait to read the next book, Behemoth, and see what is in those blasted little eggs.

for sci-fi, alternate history, and steampunk fans of all ages.

Reviewed from a library copy.

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

That line, from Whitman’s “Song of Myself“, popped into my head as soon as I finished reading James Kennedy’s The Order of Odd-Fish, which I shall be reviewing forthwith.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I have met James Kennedy. We were both standing beside the treacle well. I was drawing treacle; he was drawing pictures of Richard Nixon wearing iconic costumes from famous movie musicals, such as Anna’s ball gown from The King and I and Eliza Doolittle’s black and white ensemble from the horse racing scene in My Fair Lady. You can’t deny that what James lacks in understanding he makes up for in inventiveness.

“That’s some nice cross-hatching on Nixon’s jowls,” I said.

“Thank you,” he replied.

After a bit more drawing, he said, “If you like my pitiful art, you should really see the work on the cover of my book. Now that’s some drawing.”

“You have a book?”

“Oh, yes,” he said, tucking his pen behind his ear. Not the best idea, really, since it was a fountain pen; ink immediately began trickling down his temple and running into his mouth. “I have a book. The Order of Odd-Fish.” He paused, dipped his finger into the ink running down his face, and proceeded to adorn himself with a small Charlie Chaplin mustache. “Have you read it?”

“No,” I said. “I’ve only just heard of it.”

“A likely excuse!” he said, adding to his face an impressive pair of side-burns. “Too busy drawing treacle, were you? I suppose you can be forgiven….a dying art, is treacle drawing. I should commend you.”

“Perhaps I would read it, if I only knew a bit more about it.” I was contemplating whether the best way to order odd-fish was alphabetical or numerical; or, perhaps, if one should order odd-fish before or after the soup course.

He tucked his sketchbook away and motioned for me to follow him to the gate enclosing the treacle well. He perched upon the gate and I sat down upon a nearby rock. He harrumphed and said, “I’ll tell thee everything I can. It begins with a baby in a basket….a very DANGEROUS baby. Jo Larouche, to be precise, raised for thirteen years by a fading Hollywood starlet. One night, during a party, a Russian General appears….”

He prattled on for quite a while; I missed much of it, since I was thinking of a plan to dye one’s whiskers green, and always use so large a fan that they could not be seen. Fortunately, it has all been written down; and I heard and retained enough that I knew I wished to read this book.)

Kennedy’s book is large. It contains multitudes. The cast of characters is vast. The humor is painted in broad strokes. The journey is epic. It is part steam-punk, part urban fantasy, part fairy-tale, part bildungsroman, and part romance (in the Hawthorne sense of the word).

Within the main character of Jo LaRouche, there are echoes of Alice, Milo, Wart, and Dorothy. In the world,  there are homages both subtle and obvious to Lovecraft, Stephen King, Monty Python and Moby Dick. Yet from these many and diverse influences, Kennedy has created something unique.

Jo’s companions also echo Tock and the Humbug, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, the Mad Hatter and the White Queen; her foster mother echoes Merlin and another faded starlet, Lily Cavanaugh; her foes, the Belgian Prankster and the Silent Sisters rank among the best villains of children’s literature such as the Jabberwocky, the Terrible Trivium, and Shere Khan, to name just a few.

Kennedy’s companions sparkle because of their oftentimes pathetic absurdities (a cockroach butler bemoans being smeared in the press, but when the press ignores him, he tries doubly hard to be worthy of their write-ups) set them apart from more noble examples of the archetype, and his villains feel all the more dastardly because of the sheer goofiness with which they practice their evil, such as writing musicals to thwart one another and filling the Grand Canyon with pudding.

The world of Eldritch City, which we reach by means we don’t really understand but go along with anyway (hint: it involves the Moby Dick reference), is incredibly bizarre but functions with a logic all of its own, and it obeys its own insane rules, as all the best fantasy worlds do. The characters are iconic but have been imbued with qualities that make them stand out from those who have come before. The plot, which its standard fantasy trajectory of a quest and an evil that must be defeated*, familiar to anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings, is told with such singular style that the well-worn path seems freshly paved.

I could blather on and on, but there is no reason to; this book is worth reading, and if you love any of the books or characters I’ve mentioned during this review, you will love this book as well. This book is not for every reader, nor should it be. As Ranganathan taught the librarian so long ago:

  1. Every reader his [or her] book.
  2. Every book its reader.

I am obviously one of this book’s readers. If you think you might be, too, do yourself a favor and go read it now.

Reviewed from a library copy.

A couple of other internet references to The Order of Odd-Fish:

Robert Paul Weston

Large Hearted Boy

*And yet the journey is also inverted, which I will not discuss further lest I ruin the tale for you.