Thursday, June 28, 2012

Isn't reading supposed to be fun?

A post over at Book Riot got me thinking. The gist of the post, titled "The Gender of Reading Shame" (I'll give you a moment to be shocked that this interested me), is that reading genre fiction can be a source of shame, but women are more likely than men to be embarrassed to read the kinds of genre fiction commonly associated with their genders. I think this probably says as much about how the literature itself is viewed as it does about readers or how they're viewed; the term "chick lit" spells it out pretty clearly. Women reading sci-fi in public might get an occasional sniff from the narrowest-minded literature snobs, but how many men can feel safe reading a pink-covered paperback on the subway?

But what about kids? Gendered reading shame is a factor for some of them, and boys who want to read "girl books" bear the brunt of it. But I've never heard of a kid equivalent of genre fiction shame. (Book length shame, yes.) Kids, in general, love their series - their Warriors, their Alex Rider, their Emily Windsnap, their Harry Potter, their Percy Jackson, their Pretty Little Liars - and love to talk about them. When I do see embarrassment about what kids are reading, it tends to be on the part of the parents. Parent: "We're having a hard time getting Little Legacy into reading." Me: "Have you looked at the Wimpy Kid or Big Nate books? They're more visual, which can make it easier to--" Parent: "Oh, we've done those. We're looking for something beyond those."

The idea that there are things you're supposed to be reading and things you're not supposed to be reading? It comes from somewhere.

Friday, June 22, 2012

When Judy Blume kissed Mark Twain

A picture of Mark Twain at the peak of his eyebrow-intensive Twaininess graced the Clemens Lecture stage before the lecturer or her interviewer entered. "I think I'd be intimidated by that," I said to my friends. "Even if I were Judy Blume." But when Judy came onstage, the first thing she did was plant one on him. He has the lipstick stain to prove it.

Judy talked a lot about telling the truth, and the truth was that she felt a literary affection for Mark Twain. Intimidating or not, she expressed that. The truth is that kids wonder how babies end up inside their mothers, that girls get their periods, that boys have wet dreams. Those things are part of real kids' stories, so they're part of hers. Many of those real kids have written to her about their questions and their experiences, because as she said, it's easier to discuss certain things with a stranger you don't have to face at the breakfast table. Being that (near) stranger has put her in the position of "supportive friend" in many cases, and in a few, she and her assistant have stepped in and called social services for a letter writer's benefit. Which is a pretty amazing example of taking kids seriously.

The audience was an amazing mix. The oldest men and women there could easily have read Judy's earliest books to their children (or over their shoulders) when those books were new. The youngest person I spotted was a boy around three whose mom  had to repeat his question: "Did you ever have a bat mitzvah?" (No; very few girls did when Judy was twelve or thirteen.)

There were lots of chances to awwwwww, starting when a boy around six came in wearing a sign on which he'd hand-written, "I am a fan of Fudge Hatcher." Just as she does with her readers and correspondents, Judy took every one of her questioners seriously. My favorite set of questions came from a girl around eight: "Are you going to write any more books about Fudge?... Did you ever read The Hunger Games?"

The answers: a) Probably not, but her grandson convinced her to write Double Fudge, so I say there's hope. b) Yes, via audiobook. And yes, the girl who asked the question has also read The Hunger Games. "Two of my favorite authors," she told me in the signing line.

Now that's a discerning reader.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A sample of ChLa

The Children's Literature Association's 39th Annual Conference is conveniently located at Simmons, so I was able to put in an appearance today. Which means I got to hear about fifteen speakers from all over the English-speaking world. The topics I learned more about included but were not limited to...

-conceptions of girlhood in German- and English-language novels (including good old Anne of Green Gables, which was an excellent way to start the day)
-whitewashing and white default both in and on YA novels
-adolescent realism and its consumption here and in Australia and New Zealand
-balance in the writing life and the writing-and-teaching life
-Sendak and Steig, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Pullman and Milton

While I was at each of those panel discussions, there were six others going on. As far as I noticed, none of the sessions were repeated. And that's one day of a three-day conference. There are a lot of smart people out there.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A fine ridgepole to walk

So this is happening.

In general, I look forward to new interpretations of favorites. I enjoy highlighting what the new versions get right in my view, and when they get something wrong, it brings new understanding to what makes that story what it is. Case in point: the Where the Wild Things Are movie a few years ago did a lot of things well, but I sorely missed the disappearance of Max's bedroom walls. Though I hadn't articulated it before, Wild Things to me was largely about the transformation of the familiar.

The 1980s Anne adaptation felt like a love letter to the book, which is exactly what you want if you love the book. (I was surprised and a little disappointed that Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel focused so much on the events of Book 4, Anne of Windy Poplars, to the exclusion of other episodes that meant more to me, but that opinion is my equivalent of a love letter to Anne of Avonlea.) This new series may be wonderful in its own way, but I'm a bit skeptical because the focus of so many of the quotes in the article is on making changes. I expect changes; they're part of what "adaptation" means. But to go into the project saying, “I always like to know it’s based on the stories but understand sometimes the material is a little dry and so you have to embellish a little bit?” My mind is open, but my eyebrows are raised pretty high. The Anne books began life with a serial. They are by nature episodic. You know, like TV shows have episodes?

And Anne, my Anne, is anything but dry.

Okay, I admit it: however this series turns out, I'm going to have fun with it.

Monday, June 11, 2012

When reluctant readers grow up

I've just returned from a family wedding that also served as a long-overdue reunion. As always, there were connections over books; one person at my far-from-Brookline table remembered when my place of employment was known as Paperback Booksmith.

But the literary connections didn't start there. On the first leg of the trip, the passenger behind me noticed that I was reading - not so much what I was reading (a middle-grade novel I'm reviewing), but just the fact that I'd gotten somewhere in a book in the time we'd been sitting there. I explained in response to his questions that I was reviewing the book in hand, that I work in the kids' section of a bookstore, and that books are a pretty huge part of my life. He seemed both interested in hearing about engaging with books and eager to talk about how he rarely has, how he used to write book reports based on the flap copy and how a book really has to hook him to make him keep reading. I threw out a few suggestions and compared the fun of caring too much about whether a movie will get the book right to rooting for a sports team.

Not everyone has to enjoy reading, but he seemed interested, at least in the idea of reading. I don't often get to make suggestions for reluctant or hesitant adult readers (the whys and wheres of who chooses books for whom being a subject for another post), but I found myself going down paths similar to those I take for kids and teens who haven't found the right book. What kinds of movies does the person like? He or she might like books in the same genre. In fact, if a movie the reader likes came from a book, that might make it easier to visualize the story. And speaking of visualizing, have you thought about graphic novels?...