Dec 27, 2010

Welcome to the Dark Side

Now that the Christmas insanity is over, I'll be back to blogging on a more regular schedule. Today I was on the NY Times homepage when the following discussion caught my eye: The Dark Side of Young Adult Fiction.

Has anyone read this yet? I found the arguments to be nothing new, nor the contributors to be anything but the regular mix of popular young adult authors and english professors who have published books/articles on the subject. Their explanations as to why 'dark fiction' has become popular made me feel like I was sitting in my young adult literature class discussing the reasons why teens read fiction let alone dark fiction. Naturally the contributors referred to classic, popular, and notorious works of young adult fiction which the standard well-read Times reader would be familiar with or at least have heard of.

Could the Times not find a young adult librarian to participate in this discussion? Who else would be better to ask than an expert in the field, the very people who are there on the front lines assisting and seeing the choices teens make in regards to what they want to read. I'm hoping someone out there who is currently a young adult librarian will respond to that discussion.

Dec 14, 2010

Crossing the Tracks

Since the William C. Morris Award shortlist was released the other week I'm currently working on trying to read the finalists. The Morris Award is an annual award given to a first-time author writing their debut young adult novel. This award is only two years old but an excellent idea, since it helps promote those new voices which might not receive as much attention as the old stand-bys or hip authors who have lots of buzz surrounding their person and their writings and no, Neil Gaiman I wasn't talking about you. Or you, Caroline B. Cooney for that matter.

The first book off the list I chose to read was Crossing the Tracks by Barbara Stuber. At first glance you might think the book is a work of historical fiction, but it isn't. Or at least it isn't in the way that you could argue Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains or Forge are historical fiction. By that I mean the setting (both time and place) are incidental as opposed to the driving force behind the plot. It could have just as easily taken place in the present day.

I'm glad it didn't. The 1920s setting in Kansas/Missouri is excellent because it is one of those areas of history that you don't see very often. You feel as though you were soaking up historical knowledge without the book beating you over the head, "WASN'T IT SO HARD BACK THEN?! PEOPLE WERE SO DIFFERENT." You get the point.

Iris Louise Baldwin is the 15-year old protagonist who is being shipped off by her dapper, shoe-store owning, neglectful widower of a father to be hired help to a Dr. Nesbitt and his elderly mother who live in Wellsford, Missouri. Iris wouldn't care if it weren't for the fact that her mother died when she was 6 and being sent away is essentially the last straw for her as far as her relationship with her father goes.

At the Nesbitt's Iris finds understanding and companionship through her developing relationships with the doctor, his mother, and a hobo dog named Marie. The only sour note is the tenant farmer Cecil Deets who makes Iris as well as the whole town uncomfortable with his drinking and suspected abuse of his daughter Dot. As in all good books, by the end Iris has grown believably as a character and the reader is left optimistic for her future.

I flew through this book because I enjoyed being immersed in the lives of Iris and the Nesbitt's in addition to the interesting portrayal of life in a small pocket of the Mid-West. I fear that only certain female teens and librarians will love this book since it isn't a contemporary setting full of snarky or scandalous teens. Because I don't think it will garner wide popularity I don't think it will win the Morris Award, although it really is a beautifully written and highly enjoyable work of young adult fiction.

Barbara Stuber, Crossing the Tracks, 2010, Simon & Schuster.

Dec 6, 2010

Zen & Xander Undone

Amy Kathleen Ryan, Zen & Xander Undone, 2010, Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.

After their mother's death Zen and Xander Vogel deal with their grief in two very different ways. Zen, a black belt in karate spends most of her days helping to teach classes at her dojo and having conversations with her dead mother. Xander, who is headed for either MIT or Caltech after graduation wears 'slutty' clothing, drinks, experiments with drugs, and starts sleeping around with random guys. The book traces their grieving process which is marked by such events as receiving letters and gifts from their deceased mother ala P.S. I Love You, finding out a 'secret' from their mother's past, and going on a road-trip to find the truth of this secret.

The trouble is, a character like Xander is seen all too often in young adult fiction where a parent dies, and this makes her character less engaging than her sister Zen, who seems to be at least attempting to work through her grief internally rather than via rebellious behavior. There is also a half-hearted love triangle between the sisters and their neighbor which is hard to care about since the neighbor is kind of a jerky teenage boy who is clearly driven by his lust for Xander. And like in many young adult books, the father is hidden away (literally in this case, as he spends most of the book in the basement) from where he will minimally parent and minimally influence much of the action of the book until the end when the author brings him out to help wrap up the plot.

Should this be in a teen library collection? Yes, if only because of Zen's character which is so very different from most fictional teens dealing with grief. It's also better than many other books which deal with the death of a parent.

Oct 8, 2010

Series, Series, and more series . . .

Is it just me or has there been an explosion of series being released for young adults? Lately it seems that nearly every time I've added a book to my to-be-read list, or discover one of which I was previously unaware, surprise! it's book #1 in a series. My guess is this is due in large part to the success of such series as Hunger Games and Twilight (which I steadfastly refuse to refer to as a 'saga'). I find it alternately frustrating and enjoyable.

It is frustrating because it seems to indicate a real push in the publishing world to release books which will become best-sellers or the next
Twilight. But this leaves one to wonder where the great stand-alone books will come from in YA? I love books that leave me wanting more and unable to know for certain what happened to the characters after the story ended. The series being produced seem to answer that question all too thoroughly or else lead you to expect a detailed epilogue but only leave you hanging. Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It trilogy left us uncertain to the ultimate fate of her characters when all along it seemed she had brought them together so she could leave us assured of their ultimate fate.

The influx of series are enjoyable precisely because there are some stories which simply put, cannot be restricted to a single volume and others which should have quit after one. For every crappy YA-version of an adult series--I'm looking at you, James Patterson--there are well thought out characters and worlds whose next installation continue to be eagerly waited for. This also opens up more potential for teens to fall in love with a series when they may have previously been 'reluctant readers'. It also produces excellent results in popular genres like fantasy or scifi. I'm a huge fan of the Bloody Jack series in particular but some of the installations have been better than the others, and inevitably they will end and leave us dissatisfied, wanting more of the characters just as if they had been a single-volume novel. So it stands to reason that many authors don't really need to make their story into a series, just maybe a several hundred page work.

What series do you think are excellent and what ones do you think should have stopped after book one?

Sep 27, 2010

Get thee to a Master's Degree Program.

I just finished Anthony Bourdain's Medium-Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook and the chapter "So You Wanna Be a Chef" in particular got me thinking about what it might look like if someone wrote an essay "So You Wanna Be a Public Librarian". What this essay would say, what advice it might dispense to aspiring public librarians or those of us who are fresh out of library school, MLS in hand, has been something I've been turning over in my mind. I can, of course, only speak from my own experience with librarians and the field of library and information science.

Would it advise attending library school? Since graduating in May of 2009 and plunging into a job market that was marked more by the desperation of employment seekers for a job, any job for which we might be qualified rather than competition for actual good jobs (of which there were few and far between) I've felt very strongly that my answer would be no. Or at least, not until one had a few years of professional level work experience under their belt. Coming from a New England State where libraries are not dependent upon meeting certain criteria in order to receive state funding, the public librarian job ads here fall into two different groups: M.L.S Librarian with several years of professional work experience and B.A. Librarian with limited to no professional work experience.

Some of this is due to the predominantly suburban/rural nature of the area. Many libraries aren't even open 30 hours a week let alone 40 to warrant needing more than one "professional" librarian on the pay-roll. And as we all have seen, more and more public libraries are suffering cut-backs in staff, hours, and worst of all budgets. So how would someone who wanted to become a public librarian in a New England state go about maximizing their employment potential? I suggest the following things.

1. Don't get your Master's Degree (Yet).

2. Get a library job. I don't care if it's part-time or a 10 hour a week job running story-time that only requires a B.A. If you are one of the lucky few who get a full-time librarian job with a B.A. don't think that means you'll get to skip graduate school. If you do not secure a full-time library job then go get a second job to support your library career. Sadly I cannot cite myself as the origin of this particular brilliant piece of advice, that goes to one of my former library school professors. The beauty of getting a library job before going to library school is that for many lucky souls their place of employment will offer tuition reimbursement ranging from limited to your whole degree, so keep this in mind. For when you do decide to traipse off to library school you could find yourself in less debt than those unfortunates who thought it was a brilliant idea to go from college to graduate school without spending a couple years employed in a public library first.

3. Join your state library association. You'll get to network with your local movers and shakers which will be invaluable when you are looking for a job post-grad. By attending state conferences you'll get exposed to the topics which public librarians are concerned with and will allow you to know what job skills libraries in your state look for in their librarians. On the degree front most state library associations offer scholarships for para-professionals (which would be you, the person with a B.A. who is working two jobs to support their library career). You can apply for those scholarships and if you're lucky you'll get one. Once you have completed steps 1-3 then young novice or mid-life job-switcher you can proceed to step 4.

4. Go to Library School. I mean it, GO. TO. LIBRARY SCHOOL. A physical campus where you can meet your peers, avail yourself of opportunities ranging from social to professional and learn the backbone of what makes a good librarian. I know many of you probably can't attend an actual school and complete your degrees online due to the demands of family, work and time constraints. If you find yourself in that position make an effort to at least attend one class at the actual campus. I can't say enough for how amazing it is to be surrounded by other wanna-be librarians. If you've followed my advice and returned to school after some time off working, you'll also benefit from being able to defer payment on those undergraduate loans which you've been working a second job to pay.

5. Get an internship. I did two internships while in grad school and I cannot tell you enough how many times that came up in job interviews. You'll put what you're learning in classes to work, and get something to put on your resume. Unlike college, you will often find paid internships where you essentially become part of the staff for the duration of the internship. Plus, libraries love graduate interns. We are the future of the profession and they want to help you be successful.

6. Continue working while in grad school. I'm sorry, did you think you were going to quit your job to devote your time to your studies and be a student again? I've had people in my classes who were working 40 hour a week jobs with families to take care of, sure they may have only been taking 2 classes at a time but they were still getting their degree. You don't have to complete grad school in a year and a half or two years, unless of course, you want to.

7. Get a Job.

I did not do the things I have suggest to you all, and sincerely wish I had. Most of the successful people I met at library school did what I have laid out above and got full-time professional positions. I who did not do that, am extremely lucky to have found a job in a library where although I am part-time, there are opportunities for further education and advancement. So don't do what I did. Do the above and I promise, you will be all the happier for it.

Sep 1, 2010

Sisters Red

Jackson Pierce, Sisters Red, 2010, Hachette Book Group.

Scarlett March lost an eye defending her sister from a werewolf (called Fenris) in the same attack that killed their grandmother. Ever since then her raison d'etre has been to hunt the Fenris in hopes of saving other girls from a worse fate. Her sister Rosie is as deadly a hunter as her older sister but longs for a life that has more purpose than tracking and killing the Fenris. The two girls, along with their neighbor Silas, a woodsman by blood, spend their days and nights slowly but steadily chipping away at their enemy. But after a relocation to Atlanta, the trio find themselves unsure whether they are the hunters or the hunted.

I'm torn on how to feel about this book. By the time I was 1/3 of the way into it, I knew where the plot was going. I don't want to give too many details because I think it's not too difficult to figure the story out, yet the way Pearce wrote it was so interesting that I continued reading, and nevertheless found myself entertained by the ending I knew was coming. Most reviews, including the ones on the back of the book, focus on the 'love story' element of this work but I felt this was hardly the most noteworthy plot thread. I was most impressed by the way Pearce believably traced the tensions that arise between Rosie and Scarlett as they navigate the challenge of growing up and becoming individuals without completely severing the bond of sisterhood. On the other hand, I had distinct problems with how the female victims of the Fenris were portrayed, as essentially bringing their deaths upon themselves by what they wore and how they acted. The sisters themselves are strong female characters but the rest of the women in the work are simply regarded as 'Dragonflies' who are potential prey for the Fenris. If the work is meant to be a metaphor for violence against women then the author succeeds to a certain degree, but the depiction and fates of the supporting female characters leaves much to be desired.
Library Run. This time picked up Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce, The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephenie Meyer, and Ilyria by Elizabeth Hand.

Right now I'm halfway through Sisters Red and unfortunately I'm about 99.9% sure I know exactly how the book will end, which I don't like. Here's hoping I'm in for a surprise.

Jan 31, 2010

Kaput Computer

Back again, this time from an overly-long hiatus due to the insanity of the holidays and my home computer crashing. In the meantime I've naturally been continuing to read catching up on the YA books from 2009 I missed out on and savoring the brand spanking new releases.

I'll be posting again regularly starting this week. Keep an eye out for reviews coming your way.