Tuesday, August 21, 2012

New Windows, New Mirrors

Fantasyland has long been the realm of fairy princesses, knights, wizards, dragons and unicorns, fairly exclusively reflecting a Northern European model.  J. K. Rowling was good enough to include Kingsley Shacklebolt, Dean Thomas, and Cho Chang (whom the movies gave a delightful Scots accent) in the Harry Potter saga, letting us know the wizarding world was not exclusively Caucasian. But lately fantasy and sci-fi have been quietly expanding the imaginary universe to reflect many more of the colors our students come in.  Many more stories are suggesting that the 'chosen one' who saves the world, the boy who is knighted, the brave princess who protects her people -- even vampires, werewolves, and demon hunters -- can come in a variety of hues. Imagination is colorblind. And, of course,  Disney wants to sell princess costumes to every little girl! But while culture is important in the realistic setting, the constructed settings of fantasy do not necessarily tie colors we recognize to cultures we know.

Adam Rex, in The True Meaning of Smek Day" gives us a young heroine of mixed parentage.Though she expresses her annoyance at people who wonder why she and her mother are different colors (duh -- you might want to check your biology textbook) she is more absorbed in her roadtrip with her new alien friend, J Lo, who has racial identity issues of his own.

In The Golden Hour by Maiya Williams two sets of siblings from Caucasian and African-America families time-travel together to save another sibling who has become trapped in the French Revolution by mistake. The new friends had not touched on racial issues at all until they had to figure out how to keep a low profile in 1790s Paris -- and issues of class, servitude, and slavery are introduced.

The Hunger Games trilogy includes young people of all colors. In fact, the movie created quite a stir when speed reading fans loudly complained about the casting of a young black actress as Rue, which is just as the book described but not not, perhaps, as they had imagined. Other readers were unhappy that a large and (initially) aggressively mean male character was written as black, insisting that this was stereotyping. But the young, whipsmart, but very sweet character of Rue did not read as 'black' in some readers minds?  Hmm, damned if you do. . . 

Stealing Death by Janet Lee Carey is set in a fantasy universe that includes elements of various African as well as Aboriginal cultures. The dark-skinned native population includes a range of classes from the wealthy & powerful  to nomadic people living close to the earth. Our hero is the interloper: a white refugee from a war-torn northern country whom the natives expect to be feckless, dirty and unskilled. The white kid gets to be the failed, exploited sharecropper.

The delightful and funny Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again by Frank Cottrell Boyce stars an interracial couple and their children, not because there's any plot point that revolves around this issue, but just because such families are typical, normal, expected, and unremarkable. So why not?

Not every character should be expected to be an example of his or her race, to represent a culture, to be a token, or indeed be anything but a complete and unique character of his or her own. It is nice to see authors embracing characters whose hues are as varied as their individuality. Just because they are.

Friday, March 30, 2012

A New Romantic Era

No, Miss Shelved has not suddenly discovered the Harlequin backlist. Rather YA is enjoying a literary turn from the realistic to the fantastic, with all the dark sociological implications thereof.

Briefly, in realistic YA lit, the protagonist is finding him-or herself: establishing an identify and finding an affinity group, despite the requisite twists and dead-ends in the course of the discovery. In romantic YA lit, yes, there is self-discovery, but what is uncovered is the protagonist's otherness: why he or she cannot and never will truly fit in in. These young characters are damaged, maybe even damned, and their relationships are doomed. They are vampires, werewolves, angels, demon hunters, nephilim, warlocks, just to name a few. Not that there aren't some advantages, including the odd superpower, kicking weaponry, cheekbones to die for, and really good hair.

Lately there has been some buzz about how this trend reflects the hell that is the typical American high school, full of typical American teens, afflicted with typical teen angst. That angst boils down to a sense of being different, misunderstood, unable to fit in -- but with a passionate hope that all this makes one somehow special rather than cloddish. Heavens, we've all been there.

Deep and guilty pleasure as these books are, we hope authors bring on more of these doorstops, and pick us up another bag of potato chips on the way. Bet you can't eat just one.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

It's not over . . . really

Much media ink has been expended on the 'end' of the Harry Potter cycle. Miss Shelved admits sheepishly to having spent way more time than her friends might expect watching the London premiere coverage. She was also seen reading articles in magazines she would normally see only on grocery shelves. Clearly, Pottermania has been a worldwide phenomenon -- and sometimes it's fun to just roll with it.

But the wonderful truth is that it is not over. After all, it all started with a book. A truly wonderful, readable, re-readable, shareable, discussable, enduring book. Miss Shelved had the irreplaceable experience of encountering the books alongside two sons who were just the right ages to enjoy Ms. Rowling's creations as they were published over the past decade. Now, one is in absolutely no rush to have grandchildren (do you hear, me? I mean that) but the prospect of diving into the story again at the side of a new generation is worth hanging around for. Indeed, a privilege of being a children's librarian is that one can relive that first discovery again and again.

Meanwhile, Miss Shelved has entered the lottery for early access to PotterMore. We will keep you posted.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Common (Sense) Media

WE were delighted to read the letter from author Todd Strasser in the November School Library Journal about the marks his book received from Common Sense Media. The website's approach is less about the value of the total work than about searching out individual problems and concerns. This is a 'baby with the bathwater' attitude if there ever was one. Any reviewing forum has to work with a stable of varied -- and variable--reviewers. Generally there is a thoughtful editor assigning titles to individuals based on expertise or affinity. But at CSM reviewers are self-selected moms who seem to choose their targets pretty much based on an ax to grind. Hence the three "bomb" rating for "scary/violent" awarded to Are You My Mother? One wonders who is the one worried about being lost? Even more astonishingly delightful is the no big red lips for sexual content awarded to Twilight. Now there is a mom whose head is buried in the sand. Can one safely assume one's 4th grader will not recognize the sexual situations? Define the . . .

Please: use the site if you like to make decisions about what your child reads. But do not use the site to decide what other children read. Even better: read the book and decide for yourself.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Picturebooks Biz Bust

The Sunday papers bring news that publishers' profits from picturebooks are in freefall and that new offerings are to be cut back. Of course, the economy could be part of the problem, but the bigger concern is that young children are being pushed (too soon? by striving "helicopter" parents?) into reading chapter books. "Where the Wild Things Are is a nice enough little book, but it won't get you into Harvard, dear."

Miss Shelved has mixed feelings about this. Undoubtedly, student checkouts of picturebooks has been declining: users tend to be either kindergarteners or staff planning read-alouds. 1st graders are already being urged to move to the easy chapter section. There, readability is controlled, whereas picturebooks, despite their accessibility, may not always be particularly easy to read. It is a bit of a shame that we so quickly push children away from that section. In our zeal to promote literacy, we give the impression that picturebooks are babyish, which, as any aficionado will attest, is far from the case.

On the other hand, in our humble opinion, picturebooks are becoming a lot like baby clothes: the world would probably be able to keep on spinning if no new ones were made for a very long time. So many of these items (whether cutesie-poo dresses or baby bunny books) are of questionable design and quality, outgrown quickly, and not worth revisiting. They are chosen by adults and foisted on children, until the tykes are old enough to begin to form and communicate their own preferences, at which time a few favored items get used repeatedly and others ignored. Granted, there are picturebook staples more in the line with the basic white onesie: used until they fall apart and then replaced with the same again.

Our book order list, even for a small elementary school, will always include at least half a dozen classics being replaced. Recent such titles would include Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock, The Lorax, Superhero ABC, and The Little Old Lady Who was not Afraid of Anything. Though the continued health of the publishing business is certainly of concern, we are not too sorry to have perhaps a slightly smaller list from which to choose. Perhaps the onslaught of celebrity titles and unneeded sequels will fade away. Perhaps art quality be become more selective. Here's to a healthy backlist and the best of the new. One can never outgrow a truly beautiful picturebook.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The iPads are here!

We have received our 30 iPads (thanks to our district's educational foundation) and prepped them for the first introduction to staff. At 8:30 this morning, 16 teachers answered the call to come in, play around, and check one out. Not a great turnout in a school with 26 classrooms, plus a dozen or more support teaching staff. But it's been a hard fall, what with building wide renovations -- which ran way over schedule (what else is new) -- including new interactive whiteboards that have been a serious source of frustration. So we prefer to view 16 as a great turnout.

A number of these intrepid souls also participated in a brief pilot last spring, thus were already eager to get their hands back on the iPads. Last spring these tools proved very popular with our most struggling students. There will be some happy little guys in the building today.

Hot apps: Dragon Dictation (wow!), Tell Time, and Chicktionary.

As we keep telling the classroom teachers (who range from the happy adaptor to the technophobe): iPads are so high tech, they're low tech. One really doesn't need to teach a child how to use it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Thank You, Reader Advisors

Usually Miss Shelved has a full slate of books-to-read at hand at all times. This summer, however (due to a temporary misdirection of our review journal subscriptions) we ran a little short. Quelle horreur! Desperate to avoid running low during critical beach-reading season, we turned to our public library's webpage and sought out the reader advisory section. Well! Not only do our wonderful public librarians post extensive and thoughtful lists, as one knew they would, but provisions have also been made to allow "civilian" readers to share their passions.

Now, as with any open "wiki" system, there is gold and dross. A quick reccy down the postings may eliminate a few of the lists. One sensed that "awesum books i luv" was unlikely to appeal. But once one has honed in on subgenres of interest, or found favorite titles in common, one may find a few lists -- or better, a name or two with multiple postings (thank you, "JodiM") -- with lots of new ideas. Best of all are the old ideas. We were delighted to make the acquaintance of several authors, some in print for years, who had hitherto escaped our attention.

Potential posters are advised to stay focused. Narrow one's topic or genre: presidential biography or steampunk (not the too-broad biography or fantasy). Or take a favorite title and propose "read-alikes." And get off the beaten path. A reiteration of the NYTimes best seller list (yes, we are suitably impressed that you have read them...) is not terribly helpful. Annotations are a little more work but essential if one really wants to inspire new readers. Thanking you in advance --

O ye readers and writers, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.
O ye reviewers and enthusiasts, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.
O ye geeks and MMORPGers, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.
O ye librarians and techies, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.