Posts Tagged Reading
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?
Here is a great article from The Guardian, called Who Decides What I Get To Read. It is written by ABitCrazy a kid. I think thats awesome. There is a real place for the kids voice in a discussion like this. It goes with Judy Blume’s comments here in The Telegraph.
I love Patrick Ness’s comments about how he read everything and everything as a kid. One thing that makes me really uncomfortable at the moment is the compulsion that my students feel to constantly read series books. So limiting! Yesterday I took one of the Yr 10s who cannot cope if the next book in the series he is reading for a tour of the library to show him lots and lots of series he hasn’t ever read, and also to talk about how if you are waiting for the next book there are so many good stand alone books.
But back to the original article. Lots of parents in the survey mentioned would buy more books if they had age recommendations on them. I am so against this. I signed up to No Age Banding when it first started ages ago, and I see age recommendations creeping onto books more and more often. Severely limiting the appeal of a book. I just can’t see a 14 year old wanting to read a book recommended to a 10 year and up audience. Let kids choose what they want to read. Wise librarians and booksellers who are wide and up to date in their reading can recommend books. You don’t need a band on the spine. Let kids choose for themselves.
I quite liked Kate De Goldi’s recommendations today in Booknotes Unbound. A great big long list of books which I’m sure some conservative parents would take issue with but which really are awesome crossover reads, I’d add lots more recent books to the list, books like Broken by Daniel Clay, The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence, anything by Matthew Quick, books by Sue Monk Kid, Karen Thompson’s Age of Miracles and a bunch of other stuff which is recent and full of awesome.
Let them read, let them read widely and stop judging what is good for them and what isn’t. Oh and read Bugs!
That is my rant for this evening.
I have been shocked recently with the trend of school librarians seeking opinions about books and regularly asking for others opinions on books they are thinking of buying for their libraries on listserv and on social media. I have always thought that one of the joys of running a library, especially one where you are so connected with your users, such as in a school library, that buying books which specifically appeal to your students is easy. Why ask someone who doesn’t know your users? Why ask someone who doesn’t work in a school at the same level as you? Why are you so scared of buying something which you could easily send back if it doesn’t fit? Yes budgets are tight. Yes, sometimes you make a mistake? I’ve just finished a book which I should not have bought, thank goodness I read it before it hit the hands of a Yr 9 boy – far too much graphic sex. But you have to have some confidence in yourself. Decide that you know your existing stock, that you know what you need in the library, that you have great selection tools and do some research yourself. That is what librarians do. Don’t think that by posting on the listserv that you will get opinions from people which will match yours, you might get me, and I might tell you to go to a bookshop and have a look for yourself. I might tell you to look at the blogs or at Goodreads to see what other people are saying about the books you are considering. I might tell you that it is your job to know what will work for your students and staff.
Why are you so unwilling to take a punt on books which have been nominated for awards? Which have been compared to a heap of others which fit the same category of reader – junior fiction (if you are an intermediate school you are going to want those right) Senior Fiction is much more tricky I admit. There are always some I don’t buy because they don’t fit (too girly or ugly cover so nobody will borrow it, we already have 16 of this kind of book and don’t need any more there are plenty of reasons a book won’t work for me, but I can tell by looking. So can you!) but New Zealand kids need to read NZ books, they need to read the best of the bunch. And I’m happily going to say that one of the best NZ kids books I read last year wasn’t on the list of NZ Post Books and I was gutted about that, but I can push that book to my kids and not everyone can be a finalist. Kids need to read a variety of books and they don’t only need to read your taste. Maybe you are someone who likes ‘lovely’ books. Old fashioned charmers. Well you can’t just buy ‘old fashioned charmers’ for your school library. Peter Rabbit is all very well and good but your kids don’t live in England in the 1960s they live in NZ in the 2000s. They are not you when you were a kid. Read some new books. Read what is on the lists. Learn to love the modern. Or you should consider looking for another job.
School librarians are hip, they are down with the cool kids, they love new, they love cool and they love kids and they most of all get kids. If you get kids then you know what to buy them. Stop asking the world to do your job. Get on the blogs, follow cool school librarians from all over the world, look up reading lists, follow Zac Harding, Lorraine Orman and Bob Docherty, join Goodreads and look for other school librarians and see what they love. Look at what is hot all around the world, what is winning awards, what are people raving about. It is the joy of finding gems that you didn’t know about before by hunting around that makes me happy.
Mostly though, you should be a librarian. Good at choosing, good at researching and good at reading books for kids!
It is booklist time of year again, one of my favourite times, I keep adding to my most wanted in 2014 lists and finding new ways of spending the budget I want to have, not necessarily the budget I will have.
The ALSC – Association for Library Service to Children have put out a Tween Booklist. You know those kids, the ones who look like teenagers, act like teenagers and are little kids inside even if they don’t realise it. You can download the PDF in either black and white or colour which I think is just excellent and it makes good browsing.
Find it here. While you are on their website check out some of the other fantastic things they have on there. Very inspiring!
Over on Zac Harding’s blog I read the good news and I must (absolutely must) (and I don’t care how squeely sounding my high pitch voice becomes actually) but one of my total favourite, and a book I thrust into the hands of many unsuspecting boys who go on to love it, is going to be a movie. Out here in 2014 How I Live Now is coming and it is going to be a big event for me. I have been a huge fan of Meg Rosoff for a long time loving all her books, well if I was being truthful I would tell you that I didn’t love her most recent one, but I have loved all the rest. Anyway enough of this unattractive ranting. Here is the trailer.