Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Fault in Our Starmakers

(Expands upon a comment to Laurie Halse Anderson's post, shared by Jo Knowles.)

I've been pretty conflicted about the whole John Green controversy. To summarize said controversy: in any given week in at least the past few months, John Green has held a huge number of the top slots on the YA bestseller lists. Often, other slots go to authors he has mentioned on his blog or otherwise promoted. John Green is a straight cis white male, and most of his main characters fit into most or all of those categories.

My conflict: these complaints come from a place I respect. As you probably realize if you've read this blog before, it is very important to me that literature for young people and otherwise represent people who are not straight, not cis, not white, and/or not male. But at the same time, I respect John Green. I enjoy his work, I can't in all honesty deny that I'm at least a little bit of a nerdfighter, and I can't imagine he'd disagree that it's important to show characters who are not straight, not cis, not white, and/or not male. Becoming anti-John Green doesn't feel right to me, but neither does dismissing the representation concerns.

Here's the view I think I've settled on, and it's quite similar to Laurie Halse Anderson's: John Green is one of many good YA authors. (To add to LHA's impressive list: Sara Farizan! Benjamin Alire Saenz! Walter Dean Myers! e.E. Charlton-Trujillo! Nova Ren Suma! Jo Knowles! Laurie Halse Anderson!) And JG does write outside his own experience. Hazel Grace is a notable exception to the "male" category and is also a well-rounded portrayal of someone with a significant illness. One of the two Will Graysons is an exception to the "straight" category; yes, the wonderful David Levithan wrote half that novel, but I bet JG's involvement helped it reach many of its readers.

The problem is that when the mainstream media, especially the media outside of exclusively kid/yalit outlets, focuses so much attention on one author, it puts pressure on that author to be the answer to all of YA's problems. It's not necessarily JG's job to check off every representation box. It's The Damn Media's job, and it's our job as gatekeepers, to show the public how many choices are out there.

ETA: It was pointed out to me that many writers simply feel uncomfortable writing about the experiences of other races, which I think is reasonable. I've made some very tentative attempts at it in my own writing and hope to do more, but I'll admit that I second-guess myself constantly. To my mind, this is another reason why it should not be on one writer's shoulders to represent everyone who needs to be represented; it's also a good reason that we need to pay attention to a variety of writers.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Make way for confessions.

Okay, fine. There’s no trilogy in the works to my knowledge, and I guess Make Way for Ducklings can survive as a standalone. While we’re at it, Twitter friends, I am quite seriously excited to hear Norton Juster speak at the BPL tonight, but the Phantom Tollbooth sequel is Justerumor.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

I guess this was inevitable.

We all know that adults are reading YA. (Look at the "Age of YA Book Buyers" chart here: the largest chunk is a demographic that basically includes neither teens nor parents of teens.) We know that many of these crossover readers like suspense, and they, or the publishers catering to them, like trilogies. But it didn't occur to me until I saw the first galley today that publishers would take this knowledge a step further. Several steps, even - all the way into the picture book section.

Make Way for Ducklings is a standby everywhere, and it's a huge seller in the Boston area; at our store, at least, it's consistently the best-selling picturebook. I can't even imagine how sales will skyrocket once the push begins for the two sequels: The Ducklings Are Coming, The Ducklings Are Coming (Fall '14) and Seriously, Get Out of the Ducklings' Way (Spring '15). Drunk on the power of stopping traffic (not an unremarkable achievement - have you seen Beacon Street at rush hour?), the ducklings take over Boston. They convert the Swan Boats into Duck Boats, Fenway Park into Fenway Pond, and the Sam Adams Brewery into a bakery just for the bread crusts. Prolific author James Patterson, whose name will be on the project, promises that the whole trilogy will be appropriate for young children, but I'll be reviewing the galley of that last book carefully when it's available so I can help customers make informed decisions. Rumor has it someone tries to whack Oack.

Casting has begun for the first movie. Idina Menzel will be the voice of Mrs. Mallard, and I'm really hoping there'll be a show-stopping number called "Let Us Go."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

More paperback picturebooks? Please?

Genuine question, oh friends in various literary places: why aren't more picturebooks available in paperback? In virtually every other category of kidlit (excluding graphic novels and, obviously, board books and novelty books), the majority of books come out in hardcover first, but then come to paperback about a year later unless they're by Suzanne Collins or John Green phenomenally popular. But picturebooks aren't nearly as predictable. I don't know the percentage that are available in paperback, but I'd guess it's far less than half of those that have been out in hardcover for more than a year. Major classics - Goodnight Moon, Madeleine, Where the Wild Things Are - generally are available, and there are certain older authors who are paperback standbys - William Steig and Ezra Jack Keats come to mind. But newer backlist books are much less frequently available. (Anecdotally, Candlewick's books seem to be the major exception.)

I understand why in many cases, a hardcover is preferable. If a book aimed at readers under six is going to live in a school, a library, or even a home containing particularly destructive little hands, it needs to be sturdy. But there's a big difference between a two-year-old who's just learning how to treat books and a four- or five-year-old who should know better. If the parents of a toddler want to provide books in the home, it's relatively easy to do so; small board books run about seven or eight dollars. (All prices estimated here are original list prices.) But once that toddler ages into picturebooks, the selection around the same price gets narrow. It's a fairly common occurrence for a parent or gift buyer to wax enthusiastic about a hardcover picturebook until he or she sees the price, and then it's, "Eighteen dollars for ten pages?!?" (I avoid nitpicking on those occasions; to point out that it's actually thirty-two pages might come off as pushy.)

Remember that uproar a few years ago about the supposed death of the picturebook? Faulty though its premise may have been, if it was going to lament losses in picturebook sales (especially in 2010), why not examine the cost of picturebooks? Leveled readers, the next "step up" from picturebooks, are very often paperback originals and tend to cost four or five dollars. Most early chapter books either start out in paperback or get there soon enough; typically, we're talking six or seven bucks. Perhaps a push toward accelerated reading isn't the only reason Mom or Dad wheedles, "wouldn't you rather have this book?"

Publishers, my humble take: Keep printing those hardcovers. They make great, long-lasting gifts. Keep making those e-books, too; there's nothing sweeter than the dad I keep seeing on the bus who reads Curious George to his kids on a tablet. But please, don't forget the kids whose parents will rarely if ever bring home an eighteen-dollar picture book.

You might just see sales go up.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Home is where my books are

I've never thought of myself as a book-as-object person. I'm a reader of physical books, certainly, but I'm not the type to buy many books for myself, even if they're pretty editions or first printings of award winners or books that I've loved but only borrowed. I don't actually own books 2 through 5 of Harry Potter. The first Shel Silverstein collection I owned was a Where the Sidewalk Ends I got as a gift in college.

As many of you know, I'm preparing to move locally in the near future. (We're still looking for a place; we have some time and some prospects; you'll notice I'm spending time in the interim among comforting books.) I've amassed a lot of books in the past few years, many of them ARCs, and a lot of what I've read is being brought to the nearest donation bin, from which I sincerely hope it will find new readers who enjoy it. But as I root through my shelves (god, I'll miss the built-in bookshelves), I find myself lingering among the books that are not going anywhere except my new home, where-exactly-ever that turns out to be.
If you're at all surprised these are staying with me, nice to meet you. Welcome to Walk the Ridgepole.

All read in childhood, all far more than once, most also read in adulthood. The first chapter book I read on my own by choice was that copy of All of a Kind Family. That copy of The Devil's Arithmetic informed my views of Holocaust books as recent as Rose Under Fire. That copy of Cheaper by the Dozen smells like vanilla.

This 1927 printing of Eight Cousins, photographed very carefully, belonged to my late great Aunt Louella, a sweet lady who apparently enjoyed Alcott.
The bookplate on the left is my mom's, but I apparently felt the need to mark this copy as my own.

Don't put a bottle of orange juice in your bag at a conference, even if you think it's securely closed. Unless you want a really unique inscription from the keynote speaker.
Yes, that is a genuine Hanklerfish.

Signed first printing. Because when you know the author, that's how you roll.

This really just skims the surface (I will not picspam for every author event I've been lucky enough to attend), and it omits many books that are still in my parents' house. I own three editions of The Princess Bride, two of them wonderful recent gifts, but the family heirloom edition, complete with "reunion scene" letter from the '70s, was in no shape to travel. On a related note, if any archivist-type friends have tips for transporting old books, those would be welcome.

Maybe I'm not a book-as-object person, but a book-as-Receiver-of-Memory person? I am definitely that.

This wasn't my childhood copy, but it is the copy I will pull out to support my thoughts on the movie this summer.

Friday, February 7, 2014

But everyone knows Hermione belonged with Luna

It's been all over the children's lit websites. The publishing-industry media. The Muggle newspapers, and probably the Daily Prophet. J.K. Rowling regrets the Ron-Hermione pairing and thinks Hermione would've been better off with Harry.

(This post assumes that spoiler warnings for the Harry Potter series are, at this point, irrelevant.)

At first, the ship heard 'round the world sounded like another "Dumbledore is gay," but I realized quickly that this is something different, something even less powerful. The earlier revelation claimed that it had always been part of the HP universe's truth, just not overtly mentioned. It invited lots of "you don't get to say that now" objections, quite a few of them followed closely with "but why didn't you say it earlier?" And it would've been an amazing case of what I'm now seeing referred to as casual diversity if the series had contained an offhand mention of Dumbledore's orientation (more amazing for its not-that-long-ago time than it would be today). More focus on it than that would've been fascinating. Would Slytherins have been homophobic? Would the Ministry of Magic? Come on, J.K. of ten years ago, you were getting banned anyway. The after-the-fact announcement was something, but inclusion in the canon would've been something much stronger.

And this Hermione Steals Ginny's Man thing? I get why people are upset. If anything, I feel badly on poor underdog Ron's behalf. Harry gets everything; why shouldn't Ron get the brightest witch of her age? (I disagree with claims that Ginny lacks personality - the girl conjures a mean bat bogey hex, and she knows when to use it - but she's not exactly in the running for Ron.) What I think JK may not understand is that Hermione's choice of spouse isn't the major reason so many people were disappointed in the epilogue to Deathly Hallows. The romantic relationships in the series were sweet (and sometimes unintentionally awkward; who here didn't cringe at the monster in Harry's chest?), but they weren't the most important part of the story. So much of the anticipation for Book 7 was about finally finding things out, and the epilogue contained virtually no surprises. (Albus Severus. Cute concept. Poor kid.) Once we knew who lived, who died, who was good, who was evil, and who was Snape, we (okay, at least I) wanted to know what contributions these characters would make to the wizarding world as adults. Was Harry an Auror? Was Ron? What was a lone Weasley twin like? JKR answered some questions about the characters' career choices in interviews that got less attention than Dumbledore's sexuality, but I'd've loved to see the interesting stuff play out on the page, where it belonged.  As others have said, who Hermione married can't have been the most interesting thing about her life after Hogwarts.

One thing that disappointed many in the world of fandom about the epilogue was that it paired off so many of the characters in traditional couples. In fandom's imagination, many of the characters were gayer than a Grindelwald (was Grindelwald gay?). To have the author come out of the woodwork to say that after seven years, what bothers her about the series is that Hermione married one guy rather than another guy feels heteronormative.

It sounds like JKR has personal reasons for her change of heart, and that's the great thing about fan fiction. Anyone can write an alternate universe fic and make the story work for him or her; JKR basically just did that in interview format. But if she does that, or Cath Avery does that, or anyone else does that, all it does is allow for interesting speculation. It doesn't change what "really" happened.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Holy partially anticipated occurrences!

First things first. In one truly unanticipated occurrence, that creepy adult-eyed look at youth The Ocean at the End of the Lane did not win an Alex Award. As promised, I am about to eat a bug.

I'm glad to have just learned that spider-shaped  fruit snacks are tastier than they sound, because I own a box of them now.  But they don't rival the deliciousness of the Newberys-and-blueberries ritual I've carried out since a 2009 brunch at the home of several Simmons classmates. This year, in the bowels of the bookstore, I popped blueberries like a moviegoer pops popcorn as I stared, riveted, at the Twitter ticker at the bottom of the ALA website, sorted through the reactions to weed out the new information, and rushed to plug titles and suggested quantities into a Google doc for the intrepid buyer across from me. (Note to ALA: if you tweeted Honor books in addition to Medalists, those of us hoping to order the books could do so more efficiently.) (Note to self: Twitter did not exist in 1922, and booksellers managed.)

It speaks to the strength of this year that the only big surprises, to my mind, were in what didn't win anything. There were no moments of "Seriously? That won?" (There were a few moments of "Okay, add that to the TBR list," but there's always some of that.) I'm super-excited about Flora and Ulysses, and the appropriately grandiose Locomotive should be held up next to The Stinky Cheese Man as an example of why book design matters. I'll admit I'm rethinking the idea of a Caldecott-based story time; three wordless Honor books and a very wordy Medalist might not be the most practical combination. But I'll happily handsell all of the above; Journey in particular is a staff favorite.

Other thoughts:
I need to read Midwinterblood.
We had Navigating Early shelved in Intermediate next to Moon Over Manifest, as I imagine many stores and libraries did (or still do), but I'd been recommending it as a transitional book. And now here it is with a Printz Honor... let's try it in YA!
Hooray The Year of Billy Miller! Hooray P.S. Be Eleven! And the completely un-shocking Nelson Mandela! Ditto Eleanor and Park! And Better Nate Than Ever!

If anyone's looking for me, I'll be catching up on the winners I've missed. And probably eating Spiderman fruit snacks.