Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key - by Jack Gantos

My husband and I are renting a house by the water for the fall and are spending our weekends there in blissful quiet and beauty. While walking in my temporary neighborhood last weekend I discovered a "Little Free Library" set up on one of the front lawns. I had heard about the LFL movement (and even "liked" one on Facebook) but had not before encountered any. I could hardly pass up an opportunity to take some new reading material, and was pleased to find Gantos' book, which I took back to my rental and read before the afternoon was over. A quick easy read about a boy who can't keep still, and gets in a lot of trouble. (Really, you shouldn't run with scissors)!  Joey very much wants to please his teachers, and can't understand why they think he's such a "pain". After all, he explains
...most of the time [he] wasn't even in the classroom. [He] was in the principal's office, or with the nurse, or...helping out in the library (emphasis mine), or cafeteria, or running laps on the playground.
Certainly, if he helps out in the library he can't be all that bad!

Little Free Library - Planter's Island MA

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Fun Home - by Alison Bechdel


I first read about Bechdel's book earlier this year when I learned that the South Carolina State legislature was planning to cut $52,000 from the budget of the College of Charleston for using this work in its freshmen "College Reads" Program due to the homosexual themes of the work. Eventually a compromise was reached which allowed the College to keep its budget, but in a truly Orwellian move, the legislature required that the $52,000 be spent on materials that taught about the Constiution. More about the controversy and other attempts to ban this graphic novel can be found here.

Bechdel's graphic memoir tells of her childhood growing up in a funeral home in Pennsylvania with a closeted gay father. It also tells of her own awakening as a lesbian in college. Libraries played an important role for her. Bechdel tells both of working in her college library (putting bar codes on books) and of finding solace in the public library. She compares the lure of the books in the library to Odysseus' siren song. And learns that in the public library she can get the information she seeks without judgement. This may also be the first book I read that contains a poem about a library.

I decided to read this book for Banned Books Week since the focus this year is on graphic novels. When I searched for it on the iBooks store I discovered that it was only available in electronic format in Spanish. I was just about ready to look for a hard copy instead, and then I remembered that I speak Spanish! Some of the vocabulary presented a challenge for me, but I wasn't sorry to learn some interesting new words!

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Giver - by Lois Lowry

Banned Books Week 2014

This book is among those most frequently challenged according to the American Library Association's Top 100 List for the 1990s (#11) and 2000s (#23). It is the story of Jonas who is selected to become his community's "Receiver of Memories" and discovers that the perfectly controlled world he lives in has some dark secrets.

In researching why this book has been so often challenged I discovered this article which uses both the terms "utopian future society" and "dystopian future society" to describe the world of "sameness" created by Lowry. It is a world without poverty, hunger, or war - the "utopia" we see at the start of the novel. However, it is also a world devoid of color, sex,  love, or libraries - the dystopia we see as the novel progresses. I found it especially ironic that one of the objections to the work was that it includes a theme of  "sexual awakening" since the response to any sexual feelings in this dystopia is to squash them immediately. Depictions of euthanasia, and suicide, and "selective breeding" also are cited as reasons for challenging this book.While it is true that all of these things are treated in the work, they are secrets, clearly not things that are meant to be celebrated.

While there are books Jonas' world, each household only has the same few. Only the "Giver" and the "Receiver" know that there are others with much more information than anyone else can imagine.
...the most conspicuous difference was the books. In [Jonas'] own dwelling, there were the necessary reference volumes that each household contained: a dictionary, and the thick community volume which contained descriptions of every office, factory, building, and committee. And the Book of Rules, of course.
The books in his own dwelling were the only books that Jonas had ever seen. He had never known that other books existed.
But this room's walls were completely covered by bookcases, filled, which reached to the ceiling. There must have been hundreds -perhaps thousands- of books, their titles embossed in shiny letters.
This information is withheld from everyone else in the community, in order to protect them. This paternalistic belief is common among those who would ban books.

Lowry has this to say about banning The Giver
I think banning books is a very, very dangerous thing. It takes away an important freedom. Any time there is an attempt to ban a book, you should fight it as hard as you can. It’s okay for a parent to say, ‘I don’t want my child to read this book.’ But it is not okay for anyone to try to make that decision for other people. The world portrayed in The Giver is a world where choice has been taken away. It is a frightening world. Let’s work hard to keep it from truly happening.
Well said.

Watch Jeff Bridges, star of the movie The Giver read from Lowry's book in this Virtual Read Out for Banned Books Week

Thursday, September 25, 2014

All the Oz books - by L. Frank Baum

It took me a bit over a year to read all fourteen "Oz" books. Each was actually a pretty quick read, but I read other books in between. I immediately began to see certain similarities between this series and the Harry Potter books, beginning with the fact that both Harry and Dorothy live with their aunt and uncle and sometimes travel to a magical place. Both Harry and Dorothy encounter, and overcome, evil. A century after the Oz books were written we can also see a parallel in the anticipation that surrounded the publication of each of the Oz book with excitement that came with the release of each of J.K. Rowling's stories, and both sets of books have the same wide appeal across genders, and ages.  It is especially interesting to note the wide appeal of the Oz books as they were written as fantasy stories in which girls (Dorothy, Ozma, and Glinda) were the protagonists and the leaders, providing cause to question the conventional wisdom that boys won't read stories about girls. Even the wizard learned all his magic from Glinda.

While the only library in the Oz books was Glinda's personal library, it is noteworthy in that she had one especially important work : the Record Book "on the pages of which are constantly being printed a record of every event that happens in any part of the world, at exactly the moment it happens." She uses this for good only, but I really saw her, and her partner Ozma, as benevolent dictators. In conjunction with the Record Book, Ozma owned a "Magic Picture" in which she could see anything happening anywhere whenever she wanted. Only Glinda, the Wizard, and Ozma were legally allowed to make magic in the land of Oz. Others knew how, but were not allowed to use it. Whenever Ozma found out about someone else using magic she immediately went to quash it, with faithful Dorothy along to help explain the laws.

In the 1960s there developed a theory about these books, that they were a populist allegory. Although there does seem to be ample evidence of this, it is probably not the case. It was most likely written simply as a fairy tale, although I must say that Ozma's spying and Glinda's data collection seemed to predict some contemporary news stories as well!

One other similarity between the Oz books and the Harry Potter books is that both series had their censors. (Read my Harry Potter Banned Book post here). In a true twist on book banning, however, it was librarians themselves who often kept the Oz books off library shelves until the 1960s, believing the fantasy aspect of the books was "unhealthy" for children.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

50 Shades of Grey - by E L James

Coming in at number four on the list of most frequently challenged books of 2013 James' books have caused quite a bit of controversy for its theme of sexual bondage and domination. Most works that show up on the New York Times bestseller list will be purchased by public libraries without any librarians reading them first to determine if they are good enough. If there is a clear demand, they are purchased. There is no doubt about the demand for the "50 Shades" trilogy (which also includes 50 Shades Darker, and 50 Shades Freed). The question is why are some libraries refusing to purchase it? Some question the "literary merits" of the book. I agree that those merits are questionable, but do libraries really apply those standards to all of their purchases? One could also rightly question the literary merit of Stephen King, or Danielle Steele. Others have stood behind their "no erotica" policy. I agree that collection development policies are important and should be used to make purchasing decisions, but here I question who is deciding what constitutes erotica. Do these libraries not carry any bodice-ripping romances? Or do those get a pass simply because they are classified under the genre of "romance" rather than "erotica"? As a little test, I checked the Gwinnet County (GA) Public Library catalog for Pamela Morsi's Love Overdue (which includes at least two sexually explicit scenes). And indeed, I discovered that this Harlequin Romance is in the catalog, but the Library is apparently steadfast in its refusal to order 50 Shades. 

Personally, I was prepared to never read 50 Shades myself, but when I saw it on the banned books list I felt that I should (strictly as an academic exercise, of course). I discovered that the book's narrator, Anastasia Steele (Ana), not only loved books, but that she also claimed to not like being in crowds and "prefer[red] her own company reading a classic British novel, curled up in a chair in the campus library." She also makes a passing reference, while interviewing for an internship at a publishing house, to the fact that she worked in the library as a student at Washington State University. This revelation comes late in the book, and is so subtle one might not even notice it unless one is specifically looking for the word "library" (or its variations) while reading. For those of us who were looking for such connections, it suddenly turned Ana into the trope of the stuck-up-virgin-librarian-who-just-needs-to-let-her-hair-down. It did make me wonder, also, why she had to ask Christian Grey where she should do research about his "alternative lifestyle". He simply tells her to start with Wikipedia. Really? She couldn't come up with that on her own? Are we left to believe that a graduate of WSU, who worked in the library no less, doesn't know where to begin doing basic research?

Ultimately, I saw this book as a strange mash-up of Twilight and Nine and a Half Weeks.

Read more about some of the libraries that have banned this book here. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian - by Sherman Alexie

Banned Books Week 2014

Coming in at no. 3 on the list of most banned books of 2013 Alexie's novel about a Native American boy, Junior (a.k.a. Arnold), who decides to leave his reservation school and go to the "white" school 22 miles away is both funny and sad. Junior's uses his own talent of drawing comics as a way of dealing with the realities he faces on the reservation which include the effects of extreme poverty, alcoholism, and domestic abuse.

This book has a curious history of challenges. Most recently it was challenged in Meridian, Idaho by a grandmother who felt it was only appropriate for people aged "75 [and] up" (being unsuited to age group is one of the reasons cited for its challenges). It has also been challenged in Brunswick County North Carolina. In a truly post-modern twist to this story, teen Brady Kissel arranged to give away copies of the book  as part of the World Book Night program. A concerned parent called the police to report that children were taking the free books without their parents permission! I have to hand it to the police, who did absolutely nothing about the report.

Of course my favorite thing about Junior is that he loves to read. Junior, who is often bullied, finds solace in reading, and he admits to wanting to kiss his Geometry textbook, until he discovered that it was the same one used by his mother over thirty-years prior. This is partially the impetus for his school transfer. At his new school he befriends Gordy who explains to him that books need to be taken seriously, as illustrated in this cartoon.

Gordy also points out that even their relatively small high school library of  three thousand four hundred and twelve books in their high school library represents almost 10-years of reading if one read at a rate of one book per day. "The world" he says even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don't know."

This is true even for those who read a lot, like Junior, who reads so much that he has this knowledge of Gandhi's bowel movements
Gandhi was way into his own number two. I don't know if he told fortunes or anything. But I guess he thought the condition and quality of his number two revealed the condition and quality of his life.
A story of hope in the face of adversity.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Adventures of Captain Underpants: An Epic Novel - by Dav Pilkey

It's Banned Books Week!

I will be blogging all week about banned and challenged books. This year's focus is on graphic novels. I begin with The Adventures of Captain Underpants. 

Clearly written for nine-year-old boys, this novel reads as if it were written by one. I don't necessarily fault it for that. I see the appeal for the target demographic and I chose to read it after all, which is what Banned Books Week is all about - choosing for ourselves what we want to read. There are other books in this series, and I have chosen NOT to read those.

Pilkey's novel topped the list of most frequently challenged books of 2013 for "offensive language" (I guess that would be words like "toilet" and "wedgie" and "doo-doo") and for being "unsuited for age group" - huh? this book is perfectly suited for the age group. I can't imagine for whom else it would be suited!

There are no libraries in this book, but the two main characters, George and Harold, do like to write their own comic books (about Superhero Captain Underpants). They charge 50 cents each for them though, so there is no free sharing of information either.

See what Dav Pilkey has to say about all this:

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library - by Chris Grabenstein

The fictitious town of Alexandriaville, Ohio has been without a public library for twelve years. The old library had been "torn down to make room for an elevated parking garage...many said the Internet had rendered the 'old-fashioned' library obsolete." To celebrate the opening of the new town library (designed by famous game-maker, and most favorite native son, Mr. Luigi Lemoncello) all twelve-year olds are invited to enter a contest to be the first to get library cards and to spend the night at the library. Kyle Keeley along with eleven of his classmates win much more than they bargained for when they learn that getting out of the library will require them to use their library skills, game skills, and to cooperate with each other. 

Kyle and his friends learn that the library has a lot more to offer than shelves full of books. They archive local history, have community meeting spaces, games, and cool science-y stuff as well. They also have librarians who will help you find what you need (and in fact, I must point out that Grabenstein dedicated this book to "the late Jeanette P. Myers, and all the other librarians who help us find whatever we're looking for").

I loved that two of the characters (Miguel and Andrew) were aides in the school library, and I also liked that the team Kyle formed had more girls and than boys on it. So often in popular culture I notice that groups of friends have one token girl (think "Harry Potter") but this one had a nice mix, with everyone in the group able to contribute something, and everyone able to learn something as well. 

There were two cool librarians in this work: the town's new head librarian Dr. Yanina Zinchenko described as tall with a breathy voice "with just a hint of a Russian accent." The other is Mrs. Gail Tobin, librarian when young Luigi Lemoncello was a lad who "looked a little like Princess Leia...except she had an old-fashioned bubble-top hairdo, cat's-eye glasses, and a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows...she'd be a hundred and ten if she were still alive." She appears as a hologram to the winners of the contest and assists them in navigating the space.

The games conclude on Mr. Lemoncello's birthday who says "there's no place [he'd] rather be on [his] big day than inside a library, surrounded by books."

Rife with allusions to other books (both classic and more recent favorites) this work is a true celebration of everything that is fun about books, reading, libraries, and librarians. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - by Robin Sloan

Clay Jannon, recently laid off from his work as a web designer, takes a job in an unusual bookstore. Working the third shift, when his few customers are borrowing books (rather than buying them) from what he calls the "Waybacklist" (located in the the back of the store) Clay is intrigued by his eccentric clientele. The Waybacklist is three stories high, with the highest shelves accessible by a very tall ladder and Clay gets the job by demonstrating that he is good at climbing, and is not afraid to reach. Clay is also required to describe each of his customers in a log book, explaining their demeanor and what they were wearing on each visit. The books they borrow are written in a cryptic code, and customers always seem to have a sense of urgency about them.

Clay's boredom at work drives him to use his computer skills to create a digital model of the store, and he discovers that there is a pattern to the book requests. In what becomes a bibliophile's National Treasure  Clay and his band of geeky friends attempt to help Mr. Penumbra to find the key to the secret of eternal life. Their quest takes them from Penumbra's quirky storefront in San Francisco, to New York City, to a warehouse in Nevada.

New York City is where the secret library of the Unbroken Spine is housed. Volumes in this library are "encrypted, copied, and shelved...[and] not read by anyone until after [the author's] death." All those who have written books for the library of the Unbroken Spine are hoping that one day the codex vitae will be unlocked, and they will thus be rewarded with immortality. Penumbra explains to Clay
The nature of immortality is a mystery...But everything I know of writing and reading tells me that this is true. I have felt it in these shelves and others.
Although skeptical Clay admits that he is familiar with
the feeling Penumbra is talking about. Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines - it's hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits. That's just a feeling, not a fact...
We also learn about a long ago "between the stacks" tryst. As in often the case, even today, such a thing will likely get you kicked out of the library. A hundred years ago it also would get you kicked out of the order of the Unbroken Spine.

Thousands of computers are used in an attempt to crack the codex, which ultimately requires a decidedly much more low-tech technique.

The answer turns out to be about as satisfying as Douglas Adams' 42 - the answer to "life the universe and everything".

A final note to those who decide to read this book, no need to Google Gertizoon font, or Dragon-Song Chronicles. I already did so. They were invented for this story.