Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Giver keeps on giving

(Spoilers within for The Giver and its companion novels, including Son.)

Son, the upcoming companion novel to The Giver, Gathering Blue, and Messenger, has been on my mind since I read it a month or so ago, and since the ARC was just returned to me by a coworker who "can't bring [her]self to read it," I think it's time to get some of those thoughts out.

To start, I both love The Giver and respect it highly. Many novels published since owe it a major debt for the blueprint it furthered for dystopia as coming-of-age story. It was one of the first novels that made me ask really big questions: What does equality mean in a world where people have different needs? What would I be willing to give up to end the problems our world has?

Another notable aspect of The Giver, particularly for a novel aimed at about upper middle-grade/early YA readers, was the ambiguity of its ending. Maybe the Elsewhere Jonas saw at the end was a new place where people could experience life more fully, but in a story where "release" to "Elsewhere" meant euthanasia, it was just as likely that we were seeing Jonas's (and maybe Gabriel's) death. I wanted to believe the former; I had a feeling the latter was true. There was an exquisite anguish in not knowing for sure. I understood why standing alone was good for this particularly novel, but I remember hoping guiltily for a sequel, and I remember my reason: I wanted to know what happened in the community when Jonas released the memories.

Then came Gathering Blue and Messenger. Gathering Blue didn't give us much concrete information about The Giver's characters, but Messenger told us that Jonas and Gabriel were alive and well. There was some uneasy relief there; I cared about these two characters. But honestly, I cared more about the community; that was what I wanted to know more about.

Well, this October, Son comes out. The first third of the novel takes place back in the community during years when Jonas is there, and it sheds light on one of that society's most mysterious roles: that of Birthmother. If you left The Giver feeling curious about what you weren't seeing, that first third is very worth a read. The other two thirds are a good story, but what they show is mostly that the societies in this world are isolated and very different from each other. That's interesting and raises questions about how that came to pass. But I still want to know what happened in the freaking community when Jonas released the freaking memories.

It is a sign of The Giver's strength that I care this much some sixteen or seventeen years after my first reading. Sigh. I suppose there's value in not giving everything away.

Monday, July 16, 2012

More sad news

When you're a very new reader, sounding words out and recognizing familiar ones is an achievement. When they form a story that lets you figure things out for yourself - like whether Little Bear is just pretending this time - then you can really feel accomplished.

When you're just a slightly less new reader, past the point where words are mysteries, the next challenge might be to think like a detective about the events in a story. When the author trusts you to solve the mystery on your own before turning to the back for Encyclopedia Brown's solution, that's a heady feeling.

Several days ago, we lost Little Bear's creator, Else Holmelund Minarik, and today, we lost Donald J. Sobol, creator of Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown. Both authors' work is still popular; there's not much that's dated about learning to read.

Children's lit news has felt like an obituary round-up of late. It's worth remembering, though, that if we've lost quite a few great people, it's because we've always had a lot of great people.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What if all books began with e-?

Recently, I got an inquiry from a mother and son about the latest in a popular series that we consistently carry. They sounded sure of the release date, and for a moment, I was stymied. I hadn't seen a new installment, which I would have expected to arrive in large quantities, and the book wasn't listed in our database. A few minutes' research provided the explanation: The new book, as well as several after it, would only be available in e-book form.

I won't single out this series because I don't know all the factors that went into the decision, and because I suspect it's not an isolated case. But I will say this: In my view, e-books are an option. For some people, they're a great option, and if this technology makes reading more fun or more convenient or more private or sexier, then they serve a worthwhile purpose. But at least at this juncture, I don't think they should be the only option.

That's not just because I work for a brick-and-mortar bookstore. My store does sell e-books through its website, as do many stores like it, and a fair number of customers have been excited to hear that buying e-books and supporting us don't have to be mutually exclusive. Nor is my view based purely in physical-book sentimentality. I do personally love the smell of old books and the fact that my copy of Little Men bears an inscription to my grandmother on her seventh birthday, but in most cases, the words (and sometimes the pictures) are what I'm sentimental about. They're certainly what I'm most eager to pass along to other readers.

When a book is available only as an e-book, we severely limit who gets to read it, and to my mind, that's the real problem. Maybe e-reading devices will be affordable for everybody someday, but right now, they're not. Some libraries lend out e-readers; many don't, and though I don't have the statistics, I would wager a guess that it's happening less in economically disadvantaged areas. The series in question is popular with reluctant readers, which often translates to struggling readers. Shouldn't we make it as easy as possible for these kids to read these stories?