Thursday, August 30, 2012

My little bookworms

Today I wrapped up a longtime babysitting gig, at least as a regular thing. (They're moving; I'm going full-time at the bookstore.) When I first inherited the family from a Simmons classmate, S was three and a half.  She was a Frog and Toad fan with a hard-working imagination, fond of making up stories. One of my first memories of her involves carefully crossing "the deep... old... cold river," a puddle whose name I suspect was inspired by We're Going on a Bear Hunt.

A was eight months old. We read a lot of Sandra Boynton and Eric Carle board books, and she did a lot of playing with the pages and not much letting me finish them. In those early months, she started crawling unprompted into the rocking chair we used for reading, books in hand, and while she was learning to talk, we developed a routine of pointing out anything in the illustrations that she could name. "Moooooon" was a favorite.

Three years and a zillion games of "I'm thinking of a character" later, S is still reading Frog and Toad. But now she's the one reading it aloud. She still makes up stories, but now when there's writing to be done, she does much of it herself. She takes the big parts in staged readings of Elephant and Piggie books and does a mean analysis of the themes in Yertle the Turtle. In short, S is going to knock the socks off of first grade.

A, too, is complexly into stories. Like S around her age (almost 4), she's discovered that books can deliver a safe thrill, so she's been on the lookout for "scary" books. We spent much of the past two mornings in the fairy tale section of the library, reading and rereading version after version of Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel. Once she was familiar with the latter. she started skipping ahead: "I want to get to the witch part." It took convincing to get her to spend any of our four hours together at the playground while there were books to read.

And K, who was born this June? He's already got S reading to him.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A cornucopia of dystopia?

The word dystopia has been thrown around a lot lately. It's a useful term to refer to novels that take place in a world where there's been a big change in the way society runs things. I've used it myself to refer to, say, The Hunger Games. But a discussion of how exactly to define dystopia has made the Internet rounds lately, and this flowchart in particular got me thinking. (Click to embiggen, as they say.)

Dystopia is the opposite of utopia, and in the novels that I think perfectly fit the designation, those in power have tried to create one. In The Giver, the community has eliminated pain and suffering by eliminating emotion. Ditto, basically, for Delirium. In Divergent, the "solution" to humanity's problems is to isolate and strengthen each of five dominant human characteristics, and in Uglies, it's to make everyone look and think the same way. There's some overlap, certainly, among the solutions in many of the above and others like them (to mention both The Giver and Delirium is to think of Matched). Most of them involve some degree of removing difference and emotion in an effort to remove the problems that surround them, and I think we keep exploring that idea because it seems tempting. But then, of course, the dys comes in; the "solution" turns out not to be worthwhile.

I'm loathe to, ahem, let go of my beloved Knife of Never Letting Go as a dystopia, and one might argue that the decision to start a society on New World counts as an attempt at a utopia, though it's much clearer from the outset how wrong things have gone. But there's little if any pretense that the Capitol in The Hunger Games is making its decisions for the good of the community.

In any case, we've had a spate of novels lately that show ways our society could change dramatically, complete with characters who deal with it in interesting and often inspiring ways. Not bad for a follow-up to the vampire trend.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"Patient is a useful way to be when you're an ape."

In an odd intersection of life and story, the hero of a novel published in January passed away this week.

Ivan really was a western lowland gorilla born in about 1962 in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He really spent twenty-seven years on display in a shopping mall without seeing another gorilla. There really was public pressure to move him to an environment better suited to his needs, and it really did work; he was donated to the Woodland Park Zoo in Tacoma, WA in 1994 and was soon transferred to Zoo Atlanta. He really did love to paint.

The rest of The One and Only Ivan is Katherine Applegate's story. She created relationships for him within the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, and created a voice for him that's so believably simple yet so poignant, it's hard to say whether or not the book is a verse novel. Whatever it is, I loved it, and I appreciated the author's note that explained clearly how much of the story was real.

It didn't mention that Ivan had his own Facebook page, but he did. And no wonder: just look at that face.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Wait Wait can wait

I'd never been a big audiobook person. Oh, I saw their merit. When you listen to a story, after all, you engage in every aspect of reading except decoding. Comprehension, critical thinking, and enjoyment don't always require words on a page or screen. Besides, audiobooks don't necessarily have to exist by themselves. Looking at a book while hearing it read is great for developing reading skills; there's a reason so many picture books and early readers are sold together with CDs.

But for a long time, audiobooks weren't for me.

I've always had headphones in on my "commute" (a short walk), but I mostly listened to music or podcasts, where information came in fairly short bursts. My mind likes to wander a bit on the way to and from work, and the few times I'd tried audiobooks, that meant I'd miss some important information that I'd have found easier to catch on the page, and then the story would make little sense. And a story that doesn't make sense isn't very interesting. Zone out for a second on Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! and at worst, you're lost for half a "Bluff the Listener" game.

So when friends started liveblogging their audioreadings of the Anne books, I was happy for them, but figured I'd remain vicariously so. It took one friend's tweeting the link to Anne of the Island on Librivox directly at me to convince me that audiobooks were worth another try. You can probably guess where this is going.

A familiar text eliminates the issue of paying attention; if I do miss a bit, I still know what's going on. And I find that most of the time, I am listening closely. Reader Karen Savage clearly appreciates a good book, and does an excellent job of conveying the import of whatever matters to the characters without overdoing it, putting to shame the way I used to read young Davy's lines aloud to my poor sister. The funny parts are as funny as they should be. The bits about Anne and Gilbert are as unsubtle as they should be. I'm as enthralled as I should be.

And I'm just kidding about Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me; it's getting frequent turns. As it should be.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A "different" Jack and the Beanstalk

Almost-four-year-old sitting charge A and I spent this morning at the theatre. Puppet Showplace Theatre has seen its share of kid audiences, and that was clear in everything from the seating configuration to the participatory discussion of how to be a good audience member. (The kids knew exactly what the grown-ups in the audience should do with their ringing, beeping "toys.")

While we were making plans to go, A noticed that Jack on the theater's website wasn't wearing the hat he wears in the version she has at home, and the discrepancy led to a fairly long discussion: "Maybe he only wears his hat sometimes. Maybe he wears it in the house and not outside the house." I was glad she raised the question because it reminded me that kids can get attached to familiar versions of stories and might need some warning that there's more than one way to tell a tale. I have vague memories of my parents telling my sister and me that, for instance, we'd be seeing "a different Cinderella"--one with Rodgers and Hammerstein lyrics but no Disney mice.

I told A the same thing about this JATB, and we talked a little about how stories can have different versions because people can tell them in different ways. She enjoyed the Crabtree Puppet Theatre performance troupe's funny and very age-appropriate way of telling this one as well as the demonstration at the end of how the puppets worked.

And then, of course, we went to the library.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The NPR listeners have spoken. (So has the Internet.)

The results are in for NPR's poll on the "100 Best-Ever Teen Novels."

While the poll was in progress, I saw some speculation that the vast majority of voters would be adults. Teens don't listen to NPR, right? That may or may not be mostly true, but many teens do get involved with the YA books they love and the online communities that surround them. John Green, co-leader of what's probably the most active YA-related, teen-populated chunk of the Internet, is all over the list. So are a lot of recent books and authors that teens are asking for themselves. Cassandra Clare. Sarah Dessen. And there are plenty of crossovers between actual teens and adults who stay current in the YA world. :cough: I'm sure Divergent and Graceling and their sequels, for instance, had support from both.

But it's a varied list, which makes it even better. It's a list that acknowledges that good books for teens have been published all along, both before we started calling it YA and since. I don't doubt that some teens voted for the Anne of Green Gables books, but, well, so did I. I kind of do doubt that many teens voted for the Betsy-Tacy books, but they've meant something to teens, if not many current teens. To Kill a Mockingbird is there, and so is Speak, which to me is the touchstone YA realistic novel. The list also reflects quite a few books that changed YA's place in the industry (and, in some cases, did so for older and/or younger reading audiences as well). Publishing and bookselling would be different places today without the Harry Potter books, the Twilight books, and the Hunger Games books.

Of course, the books available in the original poll matter in the results. By and large, the logic used to choose these makes sense to me. Seriously, though, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is "too mature" to be YA?

But that kind of discussion is part of the fun. In the meantime, I'm glad that we seem to have heard from a lot of current and former teens, and I'm glad that both NPR and a whole lot of voters thought YA books worthy of such a poll.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Keep talking, books. Keep talking.

One thing I love about working with books is that it can mean working with just about any idea in the world. Right now, I'm reading a middle-grade novel that takes place in an underground fantasy world and a YA novel set in eighteenth-century France. In the past month or so, I've read about mental illness, a town full of unusual families and magical realism, an siege in ancient Rome, time travel, superhero sidekicks, word origins, ghosts with gruesome designs on 1926 New York, the writing experience of our current Ambassador for Young People's Literature, hobbits on a journey, a third grader's quest for a halo, and an airport caper involving a stolen Star-Spangled Banner. (Two points if you can guess which two of the above were classified as adult literature.)

I've grown to think of the bookstore as a commons for the exchange of ideas. It's a place where I might find myself politely defending the presence of a book that I personally dislike. It's a place where I might quietly read a particularly adult title over the phone one minute, and the next minute joyfully reassure a customer that yes, of course we have board books featuring children of color.

The staff reading this weekend made it clear how comfortable we all are exchanging ideas of all kinds. Held in honor of assistant manager Kate Robinson's new book of poetry (psssst... she's really talented), the event gave a bunch of us a chance to share our "works in print and in progress," as the events calendar put it. If I worried that my selection from a middle-grade novel wouldn't fit in, I needn't have. Yes, many of the other readings covered very different ground. But just as the evening's atmosphere created a safe space for those who read dirty ghazals and free verse about bodily functions in front of a sizeable crowd that included their coworkers, it was also safe to read about a character who's the only boy over eight at an arts and crafts camp.

Keep talking, books. And keep talking books.