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Again this discussion makes headlines and gives grist to the mill of the traditionalists and the holier than thou, it isn’t great unless it was written before 1950 decriers of modern writing in general but YA in particular. I’ve heard of ranting at Book Festivals all over the show.
I know what you’re thinking: she’s going to write about that terrible YA article this week! And you’re right. I am.
But not in the way that you’re expecting.
Instead, let’s talk about what makes literature important, what makes literature leave and impact, and what it is, as a whole, that makes some books “more important” than others.
I’ve pondered before what a YA canon might look like. What are the books which are so important in the YA world that we’ll be reading them forever? That we’ll consider them foundational books in the YA world? What are the books which the teenagers of the next generations will not only read, but will also potentially study in their high school or college classrooms and dissect, seeking out the meaning behind an author’s choice of giving their characters red shoes and green eyes?
Let’s take this a little bit further. We know what books are considered essential, important, and “literary” works — they’re the classics, the bulk of which are written by white guys in history who had the time, the money, the luxury, and the status to write and be published well. Not all of the books we know as part of the canon now were seen that way during their publication, just as there are plenty of books that were wildly popular throughout history that have been forgotten completely.
But those books, regardless of their status as classics in the canon, still left a tremendous impact on culture during the time, as well as long after.
Have you ever heard of the book Trilby by George du Maurier? Published in 1894 in Harper’s Monthly, it was a wildly popular story that sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the US. I wouldn’t be surprised if your initial reaction is never having heard of it. Regardless of being a runaway bestseller in the US and abroad at the turn of the century, it’s a book that is difficult to track down now, as well as a book that’s not read or considered part of the literary canon. It’s not one you’ll likely find in your public library (though it is available in some).
I’ve referenced that book before, and I reference it here again because the power of the book hasn’t left our culture, despite the book itself not being part of the classics/canon. You’ve heard of Svengali, right? If you grew up in a certain era in the Midwest, especially in the Chicago area, you might be familiar with the hosted horror show Svengoolie.
The lineage of both Svengali and Svengoolie can be traced back to Trilby. (There is, of course, a lot to be said here about the antisemitism of this character, but for the purposes of this newsletter, know that that’s a thing).
It doesn’t end there, though. Surely, you’ve heard of the trilby hat? That, too, can be traced back to Du Maurier’s novel, and it was one of the popular fashion trends for men in the UK; it’s still in production and seen throughout the world even today.
Oh, and Trilby has been credited as a major inspiration for The Phantom of the Opera.
If a book has this much cultural power, even more than a century after its publication, how come it isn’t something we’re studying more closely in literary circles or in our literature courses?
Because sometimes, the power of a book isn’t in its longevity or in its power to be part of the elite “literary canon.”
Sometimes the power is in the cultural impact a book has when it’s published, as well as long afterward.
Where Nutt uses his platform to talk about how today’s teens — especially boys — are being harmed by popular YA literature, what he’s getting at is that he is worried about hisplace in the literary world as a white guy. While YA isn’t great at being inclusive, the calls for it to become more aware of these faults and fix them is a huge aspect of the YA world right now. YA is where female writers, as well as female characters, have had the chance to have a space, to be heard, to have power, to explore the limits of their worlds.
These are the things that, Nutt argues, are harmful.
And they are harmful precisely because they are not part of the White Male Literary Canon.
YA is a young category of fiction, and it’s one that’s ripe for being picked at, for having think pieces written about, and for being called harmful, shameful, and awful for teen readers. Of course, those arguments come from adult readers, many of whom still reference 10+ year old titles in their quest to sound relevant.
Whether or not YA remains robust and begins to build its own canon of literary masterpieces, what matters today, right now, and what will matter for decades upon decades, is that YA has a social and cultural currency that cannot be argued. How much of our language, how many of our references, and how many of our cultural connections come from YA? How much of our shared understanding of the world around us will emerge from our engagement with books like those found in YA?
Even if you don’t know where those references come from, chances are you know what they are or you’ve heard them in regular conversations or used them yourself. Phrases like “patronus” from Harry Potter become woven effortlessly into our vocabularies, used in place of highly appropriative phrases that might otherwise be used. You find yourself with a case of “the feels” after a great read or a great movie.
These are things that connect us with one another. These cultural references, pulled from the YA world and YA literature, have as much pull and importance as the books that we consider classics. The importance might not look the same or feel the same, it may not be studied in the same way in classrooms, but it still matters.
Perhaps there is a reason these titles are so frequently referenced in pieces that argue YA’s value/harm/etc.
Rather than decry another article about how YA is ruining readers, why not instead spend some time reading the incredible journalism, the thoughtful and heart wrenching, the blood-splattered and pain-driven, the joyous and the insightful pieces that pepper the entirety of the YA world, both in the literature, as well as in the blogs, the websites, and from the people who are passionate and driven by this category of books?
I know which matters more in the long run.
100 years from now, even if we don’t see The Hunger Games or Twilight or The Fault in Our Stars or any number of other wildly popular, bestselling YA books in the limited canon (either in the YA world or broader literary world), their impact does not change. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, the call for more inclusivity, the calling out of problems in the YA world, the pointing to these huge books as being extremely white (and the responses to seeing these books not represented that way on the big screen), those things matter and come directly as a result of being able to share in the common interests and passions for literature and good, representative reading.
Instead, it carves a path toward more and more connection, more and more commonality, between us and the world around us.
And that matters, too.
(If you don’t subscribe to Book Riot’s emails then you really should, just sayin)
Frances Hardinge winning the Costa was discussed in a group I belong to and considered ‘not amazing’ by people there, I find myself wondering if her award winning book had been marketed as an adult book and won that prize would it get the negative comments. The actual comment made to me on that book was ‘well I’m all for YA books but only when they are really awesome’. Well I thought that book was awesome, and so did the judges of the Costa obviously, it has had me thinking thinky thoughts for weeks, it had a great point of view and was tense, well written and full of wonderful gothic greatness. I can think of other books which have won the Costa which have not been a patch on it. The mere fact that a YA book won that prestigious award seems to have put the cat among the pigeons. Here she is winning.
I will admit that I’ve read some YA books which aren’t amazing, and I think there is a positive rash of books which are quickly written, aimed with a sharp pointy arrow at fans of particular series, close to fan fiction in some cases. There are the gorgeously quirky, singularly beautiful, well written amazingly engaging stories that sing to the heart of readers of YA but which would stand up in any genre. They just happen to have been marketed at YA. I would put books like Jasper Jones, Naughts and Crosses, Steelheart, Everything Everything and a bunch of others into the category of ‘these are not just for YA, these are for everyone’.
The rise in the YA market is a fantastic thing, but it is a rise in a particular kind of book, there is a kind of similarity in many of the books for young people at the moment, maybe it was ever so, but it is difficult at the moment to buy a book which does not have a male protagonist. I think young strong heroines are great, love many of them, but we need to be careful of fads. I think that is part of the whole supposition of the lack of grit in YA fiction, people see a fad, see lots of books coming out with all one kind of story and believe they must all be crap. Check out this list on Good reads for strong heroine. Now check out this lot for strong hero (There is some weird stuff on there let me tell ya!) perceptions seem to be that heroines are strong, tough, kick arse and heros are Christian Grey!
I’m delighted that people are talking about YA, but it doesn’t seem possible to talk about it in a positive way if you are an adult fiction reader, it is dismissed but it does seem that this does mostly come from the writers of the unawarded adult fiction and from those who don’t read YA as a rule.
So, quality fiction in the YA genre or just dross? I’m firmly down on the quality side but aware of dross. I believe that YA non-fiction is pretty awful at the moment. Mightily hard to buy good engaging books for ordinary teenagers about topics they are keen on which have been written specifically for them. We are stuck with biographies of sportspeople and celebrity vloggers! But those don’t get criticised. They don’t win awards so who cares right?
Librarian Design Share is a really useful blog where library peeps from all over (including here, now!) share their ideas and designs and even files for all manner of library materials – posters, pamphlets, event flyers etc. If you don’t follow their blog, jump over there and do it now.
For those of us in school and academic libraries, the end of the semester and school year is a time for reflection and…reporting (womp womp). Rather than send out the same old charts, graphs, and narrative reports, why not turn a chore into an exercise in graphic design? It’s a great opportunity to learn a new graphic design tool like Canva, Publisher, or Illustrator, and may even give you a chance to think about what numbers and data mean the most to you and your library.
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Miranda McKearney has been in New Zealand recently, she is the founder of The Reading Agency and also Empathy Lab in the U.K. exploring the idea that readers have more empathy for those worse off than themselves, than those who don’t. She has been here as the guest of the Book Council and The National Library. A group of people including some well known SLANZA peeps, were invited to hear her speak and workshop ideas about literacy last week in Wellington.
During her visit here she was interviewed by Phillippa Tolley from Radio New Zealand for the Saturday Morning programme. Her interview makes interesting listening. She gives a great chat which includes reference to research into the skills which good readers have which may be useful to school librarians when justifying their existence, their budgets and their hours. Listening to this talk I started to wonder if maybe there was the beginning of a push back to the disestablishment of libraries, to the idea that modern learning environments don’t need to have books. I have a LOT of thoughts and opinions on this topic but am not going to vent them here yet. Maybe harnessing the power of someone like Miranda McKeraney is useful for us as school librarians. Maybe the cynics see us as usually self-justifying when we talk about the things we know about libraries and their places in schools and in society. Have a listen, see if what she says rings true for you in your life and the reasons you love books and reading and try to share that with the students you work with and your own children.
Late in 2014, the National Library announced a transformation of their Services to Schools Curriculum Service. At first, reaction following the announcement came mainly from school librarians – those whose Principal had passed along the news from National Library, or those subscribers to the NZ School Libraries listserv. In the days and weeks following the announcement, there has been much opposition voiced from all over – the SLANZA website has a good roundup of links for those who want to get up to speed.
I’m posting today with the letter I wrote to Peter Dunne on 13 February, to which I have not yet received a reply (other than an automated “we’ll get back to you” email).
Kia ora Mr Dunne
I am writing to address some of the points you made in your beehive.govt.nz release of 5 February 2015 regarding changes to the National Library’s Curriculum Service.Far from being 3 tragi-comic voices in the wilderness as you imply, Ms Ardern and Messrs Hipkins and Robertson are speaking out as a result of concerns expressed to them by parents, teachers and librarians on behalf of the many students who stand to lose from these changes.
You write that the transformation will see more schools receiving an increased number of books from the National Library. At this stage, I can’t see that as anything more than conjecture. For many secondary schools, receiving an annual loan of 200 books comprising “high-interest” fiction and some non-fiction which will be aimed primarily at Year 9 & 10 students, represents a complete change to the way their teachers and librarians have used Curriculum Services to date i.e. to request, as and when needed, subject-specific books to support the research needs of senior students in particular, as they undertake specific topics of study throughout the year. Consequently, I believe many schools will decide not to opt in to the scheme. The result of the changes will be, in my opinion, that while some schools will receive an increased number of books, at the same time many schools will receive a smaller number of books from the National Library. It is naive and overly optimistic of the National Library to think that every school will embrace these changes. I will be interested to see the actual statistics on uptake and use of the transformed service when National Library next report on these.
I am not surprised to hear that the Ministry of Education supports the changes to National Library’s Curriculum Service. I hope you – and they – are now aware that many professional organisations whose members are stakeholders in the services National Library provides to schools (particularly the School Library Association, but also the PPTA, NZEI, and the NZ Principal’s Federation) have spoken out against the changes on behalf of their members, and the students they in turn represent.
So National Library will support topic requests by providing information delivered digitally rather than in print, as it is “up-to-date and in formats the current generation of New Zealand students need”. Unfortunately, only meeting these specific requests with digital content does not in fact match the needs of many of our most vulnerable students, who do not have the wherewithal to access digital content at home and at school, as they might with print materials. I am relieved to hear that the National Library will operate targeted programmes to assist these students, presumably where their school profile suggests extra support is needed. When and how will more detailed information be made available on these targeted programmes so that those affected can begin as soon as possible to manage the change process within their school?
Further to your comments about sharing materials between schools and teachers, can you advise how much of the digital content that National Library plans to provide (through curated web links presumably) is in fact freely available via the internet and therefore accessible by teachers, librarians and students already, and how much of it will be subscription (licensed) material purchased by the National Library for the purpose of further electronic distribution to schools? This raises the question of how National Library and schools will manage the DRM implications of sharing licensed or subscription material, and furthermore what delivery mechanisms will need to be put in place for making this content readily accessible by students? How quickly will Curriculum Services be able to provide this curated digital information? Because a good deal of our students’ learning happens through what is often a quite fluid process of research and inquiry, much of the work that teachers and school librarians do to help students locate and use digital resources happens “on the spot” at the moment a student finds they have a particular information need. Curriculum Service requests are of no use to them in that case.
You have written about the “wide consultation” undertaken as part of National Library’s 2012 review of Services to Schools. Teachers and librarians who were involved in the focus group meetings listed in the review document were explicit in their recommendation that National Library continue to provide topic-specific print resources, particularly to support rural and low decile schools, and other schools whose library budget does not otherwise allow their school to provide either print or eResources sufficient to meet the information needs of their teachers and students. I was shocked and baffled to find that the interview subjects of that 2012 review did not include a single currently practicing teacher or school librarian. Reaction from school librarians and teachers since the Services to Schools Transformation announcement has been overwhelmingly critical of the decision to cease supplying specific print materials on request from National Library’s large and very valuable collection, to meet the specific needs of learners. I am certain that if those in attendance at the 2012 focus group meetings had any inkling of the likelihood of losing this valuable service, they would have vociferously expressed their disapproval at that time, as they are now.
You imply in your release that opponents of these changes must be opponents of progress. Of course this is not such a simple black-and-white issue, and Labour are not at all attempting to keep Curriculum Services out of the 21st Century as you facetiously suggest. Rather, they recognise, as do teachers, parents and school library staff, that resourcing the curriculum should mean providing information in a range of formats, and at the time it is needed. There has never been any suggestion that National Library are expected “to purchase in advance hard copy books on all possible subjects”. National Library have in fact been doing an excellent job of purchasing books to meet the specific curriculum needs of teachers and their students up until now, and providing an excellent service of distributing those books to schools. This is not to say that some improvement to distribution processes and promotion of Curriculum Service’s print resources isn’t required – as it surely will be for the digital content they plan to provide, too – especially if, as it appears, one of their aims is to increase the numbers of teachers who access the collection.
Can you confirm whether the suggested savings of $.392m p.a. associated with the transformation include consideration of any new or increased costs of providing the ‘enhanced’ service e.g. staffing allocations for skilled reference librarians who will be locating and curating digital collections on a wide range of topics, suitable for a wide range of curriculum levels, accessible in a wide range of formats? Will these costs, and subscription and/or licencing costs of digital content simply replace the cost of print materials?
I remain unconvinced that the transformation of Curriculum Services will enhance what National Library provides schools, and I look forward to hearing your reply to the questions I have raised.
Here is a list. A really interesting list. From Rolling Stone Magazine no less.
Unfortunately it is horrible to view, but that is probably it’s only fault. Some books I hadn’t heard of and will go hunting for. Some books which are books I’ve loved for years. Check
it out here! Here is the blurb from the site.
In the past decade, young adult literature has gone from a loosely defined term describing books marketed to teenagers to a cultural force that has spawned such blockbuster hits as Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars (all of which have been made into movies, with Fault hitting theaters on June 6th). Trying to decide on the most essential books in the genre is a bit like trying to empty the ocean using a thimble. We’ve parsed through hundreds of stories about dystopian societies, supernatural love triangles, awkward first crushes and many a mixed-tape featuring the Smiths to bring you this core collection of classic staples and overlooked gems. Consider it your summer reading list. By Anna Fitzpatrick