Sunday, August 31, 2014

I don't have the precision of language for all the feelings I'm feeling.

I have seen the Giver movie.

I can't bring myself to call it just The Giver. The Giver is a book, one that's meant a lot to me back and back and back. Back to, probably, early 1993, when an ALA-active family friend with access to this amazing thing called advance copies told me that Lois Lowry had a new book, very different from my beloved Anastasia books, and I agreed that the idea of suddenly seeing color without knowing what it was sounded fascinating. Back to my first reading, when I got to feel more informed than the characters as I figured out what information they lacked that was second nature to me. Back to the first time I reached the ending, when I realized agonizingly that maybe Jonas died and maybe he didn't, and either way, we weren't going to get to see what happened in the Community after Jonas released the memories. ("I hope she writes a sequel," I said to my mom. "Some books are better left on their own," she replied.) Back to the eighth grade essay I wrote about some of the big questions The Giver raised, something to the effect of, "The only way for it to be fair for people to be treated exactly the same is for them to be exactly the same." Back to my agony when sequels did appear and were interesting but didn't answer my questions about the Community's fate, and my further agony when early buzz about the movie made it look horribly commercial, and later buzz made it look not so bad.

Yeah. When I finally watched the first lines, I had more with me than two lovely viewing companions and a box of Junior Mints. But I was determined to give the film a chance.

The first few lines didn't do it for me. First-person narration has its place, but in this case, a Jonas apparently speaking from the future told us way too much. One of the best things about encountering this story in its original form is that Jonas doesn't know much about his world, and the reader gets to figure everything out. Still, the first half of the movie got some things right. It sped through a lot of revelations (um, maybe explain the Community's stance on twins so it can be knocked down?). But character ages aside, it preserved a lot of the important details of the Ceremonies. Jeff Bridges was perfect, and so, by the way, was Emma Tremblay as Lily. The emphasis on Jonas's love for Gabriel was just right, even if it had to fight for screen time with other things being emphasized.

Beyond that, the movie took some interesting directions. It made Fiona a completely different character - an interesting character, just not Fiona. Ditto the Chief Elder and Asher and Jonas's mom. The last third was an exciting action sequence with characters making exciting choices, but the action-packed parts were their own story, not The Giver's.

That's the thing about The Giver: it basically established the modern formula for YA dystopia, and in its relative simplicity, it raised lots of possibilities for stories of people attempting utopias and, well, dissing them. Remember the recent tidal wave of dystopian YA novels? Lots of people explored those possibilities and came up with new, if related, stories. Matched, for instance, is in many ways essentially The Giver with romance. The Giver is not.


I should add that as of a week and a half ago, I'm approaching the children's book field from a new angle, one I'm very excited about. After four and a half years learning a heck of a lot as a children's bookseller (whatever else I might say about the Giver movie, I know it will bring the book to lots of new readers), I'm now an editorial assistant at The Horn Book. I don't know exactly how this blog will evolve, but as always, opinions expressed here are my own.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

In a world where Bridge to Terabithia gives me hope for The Giver...

Remember the ads for the 2007 Bridge to Terabithia movie?

Bridge to Terabithia is not a fantasy. It is not about giant fantasy creatures leaving giant footprints. It is not the kind of story that calls for a power voiceover. It's Bridge to Terabithia, not BRIDGE. TO TERABITHIA.

The thing is, the movie turned out to be a faithful adaptation. The fantasy creatures showed up for about as long as they did in the trailer, and they played the same role that Terabithia played in the book: they we clearly creations of the characters' imaginations. Hollywood made a trailer using the moments it believed would put butts in the seats, but first it made a movie that respected the book and its fans.

Which brings me to this:

The studio has assured us that the movie will begin in black and white, as it should. We know that Hollywood has aged Jonas up and gathered a cast so all-star, it's made a few jaws drop. I'm not expecting a completely faithful adaptation; there's no beaming up in The Giver, but there is in this trailer. Maybe, though, the beaming up is less significant than it looks. Maybe it's a dream sequence.

The source of my renewed optimism is this article. Clearly, there've been some changes to the story (Jonas has a "girlfriend," huh?), but the reporter seems to have viewed a story that's very recognizable as The Giver in both theme and plot. (The Washington Post deserves kudos for its informed writing about YA, here and elsewhere.)

I'm still going into this one warily, and I'm sure I'll find things to rant about, maybe even big things. But maybe, just maybe, the moments chosen to put butts in the seats don't represent the movie's essence. And whatever else Hollywood did, it kept the title, which means more people are going to read the book.

Friday, July 11, 2014

On religion and children's books

There's a scene in More All-of-a-Kind Family, the third book in Sydney Taylor's wonderful series based on her own childhood, when Henny begs her older sister Ella to check the nearly new Anne of Avonlea out of the library. Henny can't do it herself because the book is in the adult section, but that's a subject for another post. Today, what I have on the brain is religion, specifically religion in mainstream children's fiction.

If you've read L.M. Montgomery's work, you know that religion comes up pretty often, usually in a way that's irreverent toward minutiae but respectful overall. Most of her characters are Presbyterian, and characters' hangups over their differences with Methodists are played for comic effect, as are some anxieties about what is or isn't okay to think about on Sunday. But in serious moments, Christianity is taken seriously, and all this is just part of the fabric of life for the ridgepole-walking redhead. It doesn't seem to bother Sabbath-observing, kosher-keeping Henny. Fast-forward about eighty years, and much as I loved seeing my family's religious practices in the All of a Kind Family books, the Anne books felt just as much my own.

These days, there are religious publishers of religious books for religious kids, but there are fewer mainstream books that acknowledge religion. And just like books with characters of a particular ethnicity shouldn't just be for readers of that ethnicity, there's value in giving kids a chance to see what they have in common with kids from other religions. I would guess there's been some hesitation on this front because religion is so personal and sometimes so fractious, and mainstream publishers may be afraid to be seen as endorsing a particular set of beliefs. I wonder if it's actually easier to get a book like Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. or My Basmati Bat Mitzvah published than it is to include a more prevalent religion in a kids' book. (I'm speaking here of American publishers and American demographics.)

This is on my mind now because of two recent reads that I thought did this well: Julie T. Lamana's Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere and Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming (yes, I finally got my hands on an ARC). Upside Down follows a family from the Ninth Ward through Hurricane Katrina. Religion is not a major focus, but the Curtises are devout Christians, and it makes complete sense that in very difficult moments, they automatically take comfort in their faith. I'm pretty sure that if I had read this as a middle-grader (obviously an anachronistic hypothetical), I would've understood the emotions being expressed through religious language. Brown Girl Dreaming does something perhaps even more interesting, and being based on the author's life, it sort of had to. It portrays a variety of religious beliefs within one family - Jacqueline's grandmother is a Jehovah's Witness, and various members of the family embrace or reject her faith and practices to varying degrees, even evolving as time passes. An uncle adopts Islam, and young Jackie prays with him without abandoning her earlier beliefs. There's some push-and-pull over religion in the book, but it's not cataclysmic.

Religious differences don't have to be cataclysmic. That's all I'm saying.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Let fREADom ring.

Happy Fourth! As always, there's been a lot to talk about lately here in the American kidlit/yalit world. Maybe my perspective's a little skewed - after all, this is kind of the primary lens through which I view the world - but the discussions we're having seem like a good reflection of what this country is.

It's a place of incredible diversity, a place where not everyone has always been treated fairly, but where people step up and say what needs to be said for the sake of the future. It's a place where ideas get challenged, but where we can challenge those challenges. It's a place where it's okay to express unpopular opinions and to respond to them, and to read whatever the heck you want. It's a place where we're making progress.

And, especially in this weather, it's a great place to curl up and read.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Nancy on My Mind

Flashback a couple of years: At a New England SCBWI conference, we'd just watched a screening of  Library of the Early Mind and listened to a panel discussion with some of the authors featured in the documentary. One of them, a small, elfin woman named Nancy Garden, was charming but a bit self-deprecating about her appearance in the film, which included images far more memorable than anything she might have done with her hair. Bonfires of her book, for example. On our way back to our respective hotel rooms, a few friends and I ended up in the same elevator as Nancy. Everyone was silent for a moment, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who wanted to say, "Nancy, you're brave and amazing and important." I finally settled for, "Nancy, I thought you looked lovely."

Flashback a few years earlier. I checked out Annie on My Mind knowing it was an iconic lesbian novel, and feeling like I was doing something a little daring. But when (minor spoilers ahead) authority figures in the novel treated same-sex relationships as something people should get in trouble for, I knew enough to be angry, to want to jump into the pages and say, "you know these people haven't actually hurt anyone, right? Or harmed themselves? Or done anything wrong?" I missed out on the pre-Annie novels in which homosexuality always ended in tragedy, but I knew of their existence. And I knew that though this was a happy novel, a positive portrayal of a same-sex relationship, it also depicted a time and place where the world's reaction to such relationships was not okay. (In many cases and places, it still isn't.)

Flash forward to today.  Lambda Literary's obituary for Garden quotes her on why she wrote for teens, and points out the astronomical growth in young adult literature since the height of her career. I would add that YA with queer characters has grown in leaps and bounds. We're way past the point of discreetly checking out one or two iconic novels. We have a ways to go, especially in the area of casual diversity (hero or heroine of story is queer but the main plot is about other aspects of his or her life), but look. Look. Look. Look. Look what Annie hath wrought.

Thank you, Nancy.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Stealing a school election, revolutionizing the publishing industry, potato, potahto

I'll admit I liked the galley's cover better.
He's lean, he's keen, he's of color and not just 'cause he's Greene, and he's getting seen.

But the finished book's cover ain't bad!
We're most of the way through the Great Greene Challenge, a friendly battle among indie bookstores to sell as many copies as possible of a funny, well-written-and-characterized middle school caper to prove that such a book with a diverse cast depicted on its cover can be a viable publishing venture. I'm not expecting us to end up in first place (what's this I hear about some stores' campaigns involving costumes?), but I don't much care. We've sold plenty more copies than we ever would have if the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement hadn't brought it to our attention, and if that's true in other stores, that's enough to say to the publishing industry that books like this are worthy of editorial energy and of marketing dollars. Yes, we're pushing this one extra hard, but the fact is, customers are buying it.

In some ways, "challenge" is an appropriate word. This is a hardcover by a debut author, and one that, regardless of its characters' ethnicities, doesn't have a wildly successful readalike right now. This is not an "if you liked Wonder" book, or an "if you liked Wimpy Kid" book, or an "if you liked Percy Jackson" book. The Ocean's Eleven comparison is apt, but it does more to encapsulate it for parents than to align it with kids' other favorites. It's just a book with great characters and a complex plot involving sticking it to the principal. (Don't worry, the principal deserves it.)

People like context with their books. When they already know the author, or there's a movie coming out, or they can make an easy comparison with another favorite, they feel like they know what they're buying. I've found that when I just describe the plot of this one without attaching it to anything, it's been hard to handsell. But when I say, "we're competing with other indie bookstores to sell this and prove to the publishing industry that a great book with a diverse cast can do well," they take an interest. Some of them may know about the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement; others don't but still know that we need diverse books. Some care deeply about indies, especially these days. Many, I suspect, like the feeling that they're participating in something current and important.

And they are. They're helping ensure that in a year or two, booksellers will be holding up other inclusive books and saying, "If you liked The Great Greene Heist..."

Friday, June 6, 2014

I'd let it go, but this is more fun.

The incredibly fresh suggestion that adults should limit themselves to adult books deserves an equally fresh response: a parody of "Let It Go."

The shelves bear tomes in some grownup homes,
not a youth read to be seen.
The books live in isolation.
It's your shelf, so you're the queen.

The masses howling that the fault lies in our stars
should be young and need fake IDs to bars.*

Don't crack the cover, don't you peek.
Let your age designate your brand of geek.
YA's a frenzy you won't feed.
Well, here's my creed:

Let 'em read, let 'em read.
Call it backward, call it down.
Let 'em read, let 'em read,
young and old and beige and brown.

I don't care
for your cold dismay.
Let the storm rage on.
The old never bothered me anyway.

It's funny how some distance
makes everything seem small,
and the power young adult has
can't get to you at all.

Come look at what YA can do.
A bunch of readers can break through.
If this is immaturity,
say we,

let 'em read, let em read,
raid our shelves for LGBT
let 'em read, let 'em read,
though they have a Ph.D.

Here I'll sit
on a bench by day
with my book of choice.
The old never bothered me anyway.

*Not encouraging this behavior. There's too much to read, anyway.