Category Archives: YA Literature

I Swear: Thoughts about Bullying, Lane Davis’ novel, and a New Year’s Resolution

In the past I have posted a booklist on the topic of bullying, reviewed The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso, and shared my thoughts on how books can help to open up dialogue on this sensitive topic.

This year, with No Name Calling Week coming quickly (January 21-25), I am thinking yet more deeply about why the issue of bullying is something I take so seriously as an educator, a parent, and as a human being.  Some life lessons came hard and fast over the past couple months and I think I’m still reeling.   Between the experiences I’ve had and the reading I’ve done, cyberbullying, slut shaming and the limits of free speech are all on my mind.

Particularly when verbal bullying is involved—as I have learned firsthand—too many people, including teachers, school administrators and parents, are uncomfortable with the word “bullying.”  They are reluctant to identify problematic behaviors for what they are, downplaying the victims’ feelings, giving the perpetrators the benefit of the doubt and assuming that the victims are crying “wolf.”  In a culture in which people are so quick to defend their right to free speech, what happens to the rights of others to be free from verbal violence?

Last fall, I read I Swear, the debut novel from writer/actor Lane Davis.  Narrated alternately by four friends, the novel explores the fallout of a bullycide tragedy:  Leslie Gatlin, after enduring years of relentless bullying and systematic humiliation, kills herself in her parents’ garage.  Jake, perhaps Leslie’s only friend, is the last person to see her alive.  Jillian, Jake’s twin sister, is best friends with Macie Merrick, the mastermind behind the schemes, pranks, and cyberbullying that targeted Leslie. Katherine and Beth, Leslie’s classmates, each played her own part as well.  With Leslie’s parents pursuing a wrongful death suit, everyone is forced to confront an uncomfortable reality:  even if the truth comes to light, will it bring justice?

While all the expected characters round out the cast—the queen bee and her sidekicks, the wannabes, the love interest, and the bystander-turned-heroine—Davis does a remarkable job developing the standard players and in the right hands this fascinating novel could become a powerful screenplay.  As the events unfold, the narrators reflect on their reasons for going along with Macie’s cruelty to Leslie—what is it about Macie that compels both girls and guys to crave her approval?  How can any teenager be expected to find his or her own voice when so many others—peers’ and adults’—are quick to speak for them?

Unfortunately, some of the Macie Merricks we knew in high school are now adults who continue their vicious, brutal behavior in the workplace or other communities, always managing to come out on top because they’ve crushed the people in their way.  Recognizing this, Davis ends the story with all the complexity and ambiguity that suicide demands—and the novel is all the more successful for it.

As a teacher and parent, I swear, I will be vigilant in raising awareness of the realities of bullying.  To this end I’ve decided to study—concurrently with my library science work—character development.  I hope to integrate my background in morality and social justice and my extensive reading of young adult literature with strategies for teaching character and values.  I am excited to see what comes of it all.  My official New Year’s resolution is inspired by One, presented here by author Kathryn Otoshi:  I am only one educator, but one student, one classroom, one school at a time, I will help build communities that foster compassion and respect.

Upcoming:  a few more recommended titles on bullying.

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

One of the projects in my high school creative writing class was a photo journalism assignment with a twist:  after taking pictures of an event, we sifted through the images and selected one or two to serve as the inspiration for a short story.  The only caveat was that the story had to be completely removed from the actual event in the photo.

Reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, I kept thinking of that creative writing assignment and wondering if Riggs went through a similar process to come up with the plot and characters for this novel.   From authentic, vintage photographs culled from the personal archives of several special collectors comes an unexpected, well-plotted and highly unusual story peopled with fascinating characters.   This imaginative cross-over novel begs for a sequel.

When he was a child, Jacob believed the bizarre stories his Grandpa Portman told him about horrific monsters and he was enthralled with the strange photographs he shared of the levitating, invisible, and freakishly strong children with whom he’d once lived.  As time passes however, Jacob loses interest in fantastic tales and his family grows stronger in their opinion that Grandpa is losing his mind.  Then a shocking family tragedy occurs that sets Jacob on a path to visit the remote island where his grandfather once lived and uncover the secrets of the children’s home where the stories and photos originated.  Jacob’s discoveries will leave him doubting all he ever knew about his family history and believing in things he never dreamed possible.

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The House of the Scorpion

housescorpionI finished reading my first book of the New Year:  The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer.  I found this book at one of my favorite used bookstores and couldn’t pass up such a great deal ($2!).  The House of the Scorpion, first published in 2002, is a Newbery Honor Book, a Printz Honor Book, and a National Book Award winner.

In some ways, this novel is a typical coming-of-age story in which the protagonist must reconcile his childhood experiences with his discovered identity and his hopes for the future.  However, this story comes with surprisingly intense themes—biomedical ethics, socio-economics, and geo-political borders—relevant to contemporary readers regardless of how long ago they were teenagers.

After reading, I’m pondering the following questions:  in a future where cloning is more than a mere possibility, what separates humans from animals?  When it comes to science and human life, where will we draw the line between what we can do and what we should do?  In a world of unfairly distributed wealth, what is a government’s responsibility to its people?  What is the people’s to their government?

In The House of the Scorpion, main character Matt is harvested from the womb of a cow after being cloned from the skin cells of 140-year-old Mateo Alacrán, known as El Patrón, the drug lord who controls the borderland between the United States and Aztlán.   When he is six years old, after spending his whole life in a small shack with his caretaker Celia, Matt discovers his true identity at the same time that he learns clones are less than animals, less even than the eejits who have computer chips implanted in their brains so that they are little more than zombies.   As he grows from a boy to a man, Matt demonstrates that he is intelligent, talented, empathetic and sincere.  But with his genetic code the exact copy of a ruthless, power-hungry man who hoards his wealth while his workers waste away, how can Matt ever prove himself to be human, let alone his own person?

This novel would make an excellent whole class read for a course on ethics or morality, and would also provide interesting discussion points for Mexican American history and politics.  Books with similar themes:  Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, This Dark Endeavor and Such Wicked Intent by Kenneth Oppel, and Across the Universe by Beth Revis (science and ethics); Red Glass by Laura Resau, Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea, and Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya (culture, identity and self-discovery, geo-political borders).

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Albus Dumbledore is a Censor

In honor of Banned Books Week 2011, a reflection on censorship and Harry Potter:

For more than a decade, discussions of children’s literature, libraries and censorship inevitably mention Harry Potter.  However, those discussions rarely—if ever—feature an analysis of the library and incidents of censorship within the series itself.  J.K. Rowling offers much to consider on both counts:

Madam Irma Pince, the librarian at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where Harry Potter receives six years of magical education, is described as a “thin, irritable woman who look[s] like an underfed vulture” (CS 163).  Forever “suspicious” of the students (CS 164), she “has been known to add unusual jinxes to the books in her care” (QA).  J.K. Rowling characterizes (and even names) Madam Pince with the stereotype of an old maid librarian whom the students think is “barking mad” (HBP 307).  A guardian of “her” books (QA), Madam Pince is often “breathing down [students’] necks” (SS 198).  She “brandish[es] a featherduster” at Harry during his very first visit to the library and demands, “What are you looking for, boy?” (SS 198).  Years later Madam Pince bewitches Harry’s own school books to whack him repeatedly over the head when she discovers Harry eating chocolate in the library (OP 655).  Though Harry and his friends frequent the library during their school years, they never ask Madam Pince for her help in their research.  Rather, they avoid her and discover information on their own.  They approach her on only one occasion, when they need her to retrieve a book from the Restricted Section.  Thus, as a character, the information professional is superfluous to the Harry Potter story, and Madam Pince ultimately reinforces the negative stereotype of a librarian.

The Hogwarts library, however, is essential to the plot of the entire Harry Potter series.  On two occasions (SS & GF), Harry uses his invisibility cloak to sneak into the library after hours to do research, and Harry’s best friend Hermione Granger spends more time in the library than any other main character.  Hermione, the best student in Harry’s class, utilizes the library not only for schoolwork, but also to research issues of personal interest and to help Harry as he confronts various challenges.  Indeed when Harry and Hermione, along with Ron Weasley, prepare for their most dangerous challenge in the final book, Ron jokes that the three will be “hunting down Voldemort in a mobile library” (DH 95).  By continually referring to the library (or books retrieved from the library) as a source of key information, Rowling highlights the significant contribution of a library to one’s formal and informal education.

The most referenced and quoted incident of censorship in the Harry Potter series occurs when Ministry of Magic representative turned Hogwarts professor Dolores Umbridge instates “Educational Decree Number Twenty-seven,” banning an alternative magazine called The Quibbler which features a controversial interview with one Mr. Harry Potter.  As Hermione points out, “if [Umbridge] could have done one thing to make absolutely certain that every single person in [the] school will read [Harry’s]  interview, it was banning it!” (OP 582).  Rowling reveals the ineffectiveness of censors and the shrewdness with with young people circumvent them.

Another, less noticeable incident of censorship serves as a significant plot point in the series:  Rowling reveals that Tom Riddle, who becomes the dark wizard Voldemort, learned a great deal of dark magic from books in the Hogwarts library.  In the case of Horcruxes, which involve murder, “Voldemort g[ets] all the instruction he need[s] from [a library book]” (DH 102).  Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore removes all of the Horcrux books from the library, but not until well after Tom Riddle has attained access to them.  Here, Rowling illuminates an ethical dilemma for librarians in regard to equal access to information:  when he is underage, Tom Riddle uses information he found in the school library to commit crimes against other people; Dumbledore makes the choice to censor that information by removing it from the library collection, yet Harry and his friends have no hope of defeating their foe without access to that same information.

Considering the psychology of the censor, Dumbledore’s decision merits deliberation:  Dumbledore consistently demonstrates wisdom and is widely believed to be a talented educator and leader, yet he freely admits to weaknesses, to the capacity for grave errors in judgment.  Certainly Dumbledore has his critics.  Does this example make a case for some censorship being acceptable?  Moreover, the Hogwarts library contains the aforementioned Restricted Section (which is where the material in question was shelved in the first place):  is this, in effect, a form of censorship that is acceptable? 

Key:

SS=Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

CS=Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

GF=Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

OP=Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

HBP=Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

DH=Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

QA=Quidditch Through the Ages

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Filed under Library and Information Science, Reflections, YA Literature

Pretty Beaded Bookmarks

Do you have these situations on your bookshelves?

My husband habitually uses blank index cards as book marks (a remnant of his student days) while I tend to grab whatever scrap paper is in reach.  This results in many lost grocery lists, receipts or hastily jotted addresses turning up when I’m rifling through pages to find a quote or reference.

This scrap was particularly bugging me since this is our artful “display” bookcase in the living room.

When I was scouring a local bead shop for an unrelated project, I spotted this funny thing that looked like a miniature shepherd’s staff or an earring for a half-giant.  I was baffled as to what it could be and then felt silly when I finally realized what it was.  (My confusion was warranted, right?  I mean, what do they look like to you?)

Anyway, though I would have happily selected enough pretty beads and findings to make a few dozen of these I forced myself to exercise some restraint and started off making just two.  More will follow, especially since these would make a great gift for any reader.  Or at least any reader who hasn’t abandoned books for nooks.

I’m not going to post a tutorial because…well, I don’t want to.  But I will post some pictures when I make more and perhaps I’ll even give away a few.

Thanks for stopping by!

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Good-bye, Borders. *sniff*

I’m saddened to hear that Borders is shutting down for good.  (Read more about it here or here.)

So many fond memories:  in high school my friends and I spent many weekend hours at our local Borders discovering gems on the shelves and geeking out together in the café .  It was our favorite hangout.  My husband and I, when we were dating in college, sometimes changed up our study routine by staking out a table in the café rather than heading off to the library.  When my daughter was a toddler and preschooler, she and I may have spent more time reading on the floor of the kids’ section than we did in the library.

I suppose the closure is a good thing for indie bookshops who deserve all the love we can give them.  Over the weekend I looked into the Goodwill Bookloft in downtown San Diego and was pleasantly surprised at how well-organized it was and at the great selection.  Any place I can score three terrific books for $3 is a place I’ll return to.

When it comes to books, do you have a favorite store where you love to browse?  Or are you a dedicated online shopper?

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Teenagers needed—Please help!

I am currently taking a class on the history of young adult literature and I have an assignment to ask tweens and/or teens about their reading habits/preferences.  However, it is summer and I spend most all my time with the early elementary school crowd, so I do not have any teens readily available to interview.

Below is a link to a brief survey that I created.  It should not take longer than 10 minutes.  I would be so, so grateful to anyone aged 10-19 who would be willing to participate.  Adults, maybe you could coerce a teenager (or several) over whom you have undue influence to fill it out?  I will be summarizing the responses to be discussed among the students in my class only.  No identifying information from survey participants will be shared.  The deadline for participation is  Saturday, July 2 as my report is due the following day.  (No, I did not procrastinate spectacularly as per my usual style; the prof just dropped this assignment yesterday!)

Feel free to forward the link to anyone who would be willing to participate.  Thank you so much!

https://spreadsheets.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?hl=en_US&formkey=dEZBQkc5SXBaVTlzWVFVWlppRGdqMGc6MQ#gid=0

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