Following Through on Book Clubs, and, Windows & Mirrors

Over the last few years, avid and ambitious readers among the students and staff have pitched their book club desires to me. Naturally I’m game, but as our clubs and organizations already are challenged by finding time to meet I admit I’ve been pessimistic about book club success. A handful of times such an effort would result in one meeting and then fizzle out. This year I’m giving it another go, inspired by two things. First is our newly formed Global Diversity Council, comprising students and faculty members and tasked with ensuring “effective diversity engagement, inclusive excellent practices, a multicultural environment and curriculum, equitable activities, and social justice actions.”

The second was a recent well-timed article from Teaching Tolerance, in which Chelsea Tornetto writes:

“A story is often the most effective way to create personal connections between very different people. Reading a novel allows us to see the world through someone else’s eyes, remove the context we are used to and replace it with something new. We are more prepared to accept things beyond our own experiences because we know we are reading a ‘story,’ and yet we also actively search for similarities between our own lives and the lives of the characters. A novel can begin to open students’ minds and shape their hearts, without doing battle against their sense of self.”

While this is something we all know already, evoking Rudine Sims Bishop’s often referenced “windows, sliding doors, and mirrors” metaphor, I read it at the right time. This past summer our faculty and staff read Global Dexterity by Andy Molinsky, and the last line of this quotation points beautifully to the concept of this title; that we can find and should seek ways to effectively engage, identify with, and relate to people who are culturally different from ourselves without compromising our own identities and values. Reading about a fictional yet realistic character’s experiences is a safe way to practice this, which our school community wants and needs to do.

This article reminded me how simple yet powerful a program this could be, and with the right book, the right group to participate in and promote it, and enough (widely publicized) pizza, it could be a success.

This feels a little hard to say, but one of the stumbling blocks our book clubs have faced in the past is perhaps too much student ownership. I think my belief in wanting to give students voice and choice in this type of activity may have deprived them of a valuable experience. Of course I would like student voices heard and student ownership of our selections and discussions, but well-intentioned as our students may be, they, like all of us, just don’t always have time to do “extra” things like prepare, make posters, and successfully book talk an extracurricular novel. Reminder to self – reading promotion, awareness of current publications, and facilitating discussions about literature are my job. Those things aren’t “extra” for me. So maybe, for the students to have a great experience, a little adult (read: librarian) ownership is not such a bad thing.

I went to a GDC meeting last week and shared this idea. Rather than asking for book suggestions from the students, I said “The first book will be The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and first meeting will be during lunch on December 13 in the library with pizza. I hope that if we decide to continue the book club that you folks will have some suggestions.” An interested buzz made its way around the room, so that’s good enough to forge ahead.

Then I sent this poster to Upper School students, faculty, and staff:
Window and Mirrors Book Club

With interest and partnership from the GDC, I think this will go very well. Our library collection holds copies of this particular title in three formats, and the GDC was able to purchase a few copies for students, faculty, and staff to bring home over Thanksgiving break. The books came in yesterday and three copies had already been claimed by 8:30 this morning. I’ll spring for the pizza.

I would love to hear about others’ Windows and Mirrors Book Club successes, stumbles, and book choices. My hypothesis is that we will need to choose very current titles representing diverse identities and experiences, personally invite some folks who might not be paying attention to emails and announcements, and make sure everyone knows about the food.

Let’s give them something to talk about

I want to share with you some really good books that I’ve been reading that you might like to consider for Black History Month, or an all campus read, or maybe you’re looking for a book to anchor your mental health awareness discussion.

[Will update this post first thing in the morning with an original review, but I have to go coach a volleyball game right now and I don’t want to wait to post this as it’s already a day late. Did I mention that I’m having a crazy week? Here’s the synopsis from Amazon:]

Winner of the NBCC’s John Leonard First Book Prize
A New York Times 2016 Notable Book
One of Oprah’s 10 Favorite Books of 2016
NPR’s Debut Novel of the Year
One of Buzzfeed’s Best Fiction Books Of 2016
One of Time‘s Top 10 Novels of 2016, Winner of 2017 PEN Hemingway award for debut fiction.

Homegoing is an inspiration.” —Ta-Nehisi Coates 

The unforgettable New York Times best seller begins with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written with tremendous sweep and power, Homegoing traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indeliably drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.

Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

SUCH A GOOD BOOK. Perfect choice for your BHA group or to feature in a display in February.

 

The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas is the first YA title I’ve read that addresses the Black Lives Matter movement. You will devour it like you devour a John Green novel. It is the story of Starr Carter, an African American girl who lives in the same impoverished neighborhood that her father was raised in, but who attends an elite private school a half hour away. One Friday night, when Starr attends a neighborhood party, a fight breaks out, shots ring out, and she flees with her childhood friend, Khalil. As they are driving away, Khalil is pulled over by a white police officer. You can guess how it goes. The story that follows is like a many-layered onion, you have Starr dealing with the trauma of losing her friend (and being the only witness), her interesting relationship with her family, her frustration over having to have a split personality–not wanting to be the “angry black girl” at school and for “acting too white” when she’s in her neighborhood. You have the trial of the police officer and Starr’s interesting relationship with her uncle who is a police detective. I could go on and on about the writing, the empathy that Thomas creates for her characters, just how REAL the story feels, it’s as horrible to experience as you might imagine it is for those we read about in the news. For those of you working with upper schoolers, this would make for an AMAZING community book discussion. We’re working on bringing it to my school now.

Some recent articles on the book are here, from NPR and this review from The Atlantic.

Note: we just ordered, All American Boys, that deals with similar issues. I plan to start this tonight.

And lastly,

You guys are already reading this, right? I sat down and read it on Saturday. And then my son asked if we could watch “My Girl”. I think he wanted to see if I had any tears left in me?  Shockingly, I did. This book is as painful as “The Fault in Our Stars” but in a completely different way. Stuck inside the head of a young girl with severe anxiety and OCD, JG does it again, crafting a young adult book that is the perfect blend of witty dialog and smart teens dealing with heavy things–like the death of a parent, our place in the universe, philosophy and mental illness.  Sixteen year old Aza suffers thought spirals and has profound fears about microbes waging war on her body from within. She questions who the “real” her is, judges her wellness based on how far the space is between therapist appointments, debates whether to medicate or not, and wonders how she will ever be able to go to college, live on her own, or maintain a relationship with a boy she really likes when being close to him sends her into total panic attack.

Oh, and intertwined in the story is a quirky best friend, Daisy, who writes love story Fan Fic about Chewbaca and Rey and also a mystery–where has the billionaire father of Aza’s love interest disappeared to? Who will claim the $100,000 reward for information leading to his return? How could $100,000 change her and Daisy’s lives?

Your students will be reading this book. You should too.

Some thoughts on YA…

When I started in my current position thirteen years ago, our young adult section was primarily for students in grades 8 – 10. Now, it’s skewing much younger; our grade six students can regularly be found scouring the shelves for good titles, and our more ‘racy’ material has been pushed up to our adult fiction section. It seems as though every other fiction title that arrives in the library office merits some discussion about where best to place it in the library collection as we grapple with issues of content, suitability and appropriateness. I have a grade 1 – 12 library; defining these individual leveled reading sections is becoming more and more of a challenge.

The original definition of Young Adult, in a psychological sense, is someone in the age range 20 – 39. This is not useful for our school library purposes. Internationally, the term is open to debate. In the UK, ‘teen’ covers 12-14 year olds, and YA is for readers aged 14+. Here in North America, teen is a synonym for YA. As the publishing industry, and us mere librarians, grapple with these definitions, one can see how rules can be applied inconsistently to our collections. I also occasionally see references to ‘New Adult’ fiction, and have surmised that this is for college-age readers – YA with an ‘edge’ is how I’ve heard it described. But a lot of the YA we have is pretty edgy. Indeed, I consider ‘edgy’ to be a hallmark of a good YA book…

Our grade 7s ask for ‘realistic fiction’, but happily accept YA level fantasy. Our grade 8s ask for ‘romance’. Our grade 6s ask for teen books. Our grade 10s ask for an ‘easy read’. They all want the same thing. Is it any wonder that publishers are struggling to market these books, and identify a core market? Take, for example, an author such as Rainbow Rowell. Her first novel, Attachments, was marketed as an adult novel, and her second Eleanor and Park was touted as YA fiction. Her other novels, including Landline (maybe more adult than YA?), FanGirl and Carry On could fall in either camp. They have been marketed both ways; indeed, each can claim to be a true cross-over book.

My school is a great reading community, but on the whole, we find that adult readers are resistant to YA. There is little YA on our summer required reading lists (although this is improving), and when students come to the library to ask for a novel for independent study they tell us that it must be a ‘grown-up book’ (i.e. from our adult fiction collection); our English faculty are not YA readers. My fellow librarian and I are working to spread the YA love, but it is something of an uphill battle.

(And where does fanfiction fit in here? Are teens writing the material they want to read? And if so, why hasn’t a publisher jumped on this?)

I like this definition from Michael Cart: ‘…young adult literature has, since the mid-1990’s, come of age as literature – literature that welcomes artistic innovation, experimentation and risk-taking’. Maybe we should stop trying to apply labels, and just let our readers roam free in the stacks. They always manage to find a good book, regardless.

Oh yes, the books!

Do you ever feel so busy juggling your <insert a thousand library related duties here> along with ‘big projects’, faculty meetings, team meetings, committee meetings, collaborative meetings, research lessons, EMAIL, Libguide design, and oh yes, working with students, teaching classes, and other various non-library related school responsibilities that sometimes you look longingly at the cart of new books that you’ve  purchased, knowing you won’t get to many of them until summertime?

This comes to mind:

I drew a line in the sand for myself a month ago. It might have been around the time that reeeeeaaallly cold temperatures arrived and I went into hibernation, I’m not sure, but I basically said “no more putting the kids to bed and escaping into mindless Netflix, no more half-hearted attempts at professional journals when I’ve been neck deep in the issues all day long. Nope, I’m escaping into the books.”

I’ve read three books in three weeks, people. I’m in heaven. I thought I would share them with you here and then maybe you’ll reciprocate with some good reads of your own?

I started with two National Book Award finalists:Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The most beautifully written dystopian book I believe I’ve ever read. The premise is this: set in the present day United States, an absolutely deadly, fast moving flu has wiped out over 99% of the world population. The entire infrastructure has collapsed: there is no gasoline, no electricity, no medicine, no security. A troop of traveling Shakespearean actors and musicians makes a loop through a region, risking much, honoring the Star Trek quote that dons the side of their makeshift caravan, Because Survival is Insufficient. This is a survival story and so would be most appropriate for mature middle schoolers or high schoolers, but it’s a good one that I highly recommend.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. If you or your students are fans of historic fiction, this is your book! Written in alternating perspectives, it’s the story of Marie-Laure, the French daughter of the locksmith of the Museum of Natural History, who has gone blind at a young age and whose natural curiosity is in itself a thing of wonder. You then get to know a German orphan named Werner whose gift at assembling radios and deciphering radio frequencies gains the attention of German officials as Hitler begins his quest for world domination. The story weaves together like a beautiful, albeit tragic wartime tapestry.

It’s quite clear why both of these books were nominated for the NBA. They are excellent. Now onto my third book, which I’m honestly still reeling from. It’s not for the faint of heart, so consider yourself warned.

It’s An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. Ms. Gay is coming to visit our school this spring so I purchased both of her highly acclaimed books (Bad Feminist, a collection of witty, culturally and politically charged essays is her other).  Our faculty book club selected the novel as our February read so I went ahead and read it over the weekend. I knew from the blurb that it would be tough: an affluent woman of Haitian descent, living in Miami, living a pretty idyllic life with her loving husband and adorable baby boy, goes to visit her parents back in Haiti. As they leave the family compound to go spend a day on the beach, three SUVs pull up with masked armed men, the wife is kidnapped, and a mighty ransom is demanded. Her father refuses to pay and the ultimate stand-off begins, one in which some pretty graphic torture scenes take place and Mireille does her best to survive with her sanity intact.

If you have a strong fortitude, I say read it. It’s brilliantly written, the character development is superb, there are some really interesting relationships, and the tension is palpable when you experience the desperation that abject poverty brings. My blinders were removed regarding how routine kidnapping is in other parts of the world and this story, the good and the bad, is going to stick with me for a very long time, I can already tell. All marks of a good book in my opinion.

So now I ask you, what books have you read lately that you would suggest? Ready, set, comment below!

Sharing is Caring – Technology, Privacy, and The Circle

It’s summer….

and so I’m inundated with books! Each year, I make the attempt to read all the books on the summer reading lists and all new books being taught in English courses over the next year. I also get distracted with my own reading and recommendations from friends. So while it’s an admirable goal, it’s one I’m as happy to have “in progress” as complete. Each school does summer reading a little bit differently. In our school, there’s one community book that everyone reads (1), 14 sponsored books, of which students choose one (15), and four professional books of which faculty choose one (20). One of the reasons that I enjoy doing this is that it leads to authentic (ie. not “small talky”) conversations with all students and teachers in August. It’s a shared experience, and you can always glean something from a book, even when it isn’t a book you’d choose yourself. Which leads to the other reason that I enjoy this. I am exposed to a variety of books I might not otherwise read, and there is a deadline that motivates me to read them.

One of the sponsored books this summer was The Circle, Dave Eggers’ most recent book, which was published last fall. While it could be described as a near-future technology dystopia, I’m partial to Margaret Atwood’s term “satirical utopia.” Imagine Google, Facebok, Twitter, YouTube, and Apple as one company, a happy company that just happens to wield a lot of power. When one of my English teachers requested this book as his sponsored summer reading, I thought back to Atwood’s favorable review in the New York Review of Books, where she writes statements like,

“The outpouring of ideas is central to The Circle, as it is in part a novel of ideas. What sort of ideas? Ideas about the social construction and deconstruction of privacy, and about the increasing corporate ownership of privacy, and about the effects such ownership may have on the nature of Western democracy. Dissemination of information is power, as the old yellow-journalism newspaper proprietors knew so well. What is withheld can be as potent as what is disclosed, and who can lie publicly and get away with it is determined by gatekeepers: thus, in the Internet age, code-owners have the keys to the kingdom.

This, then, is the “real” world to which Eggers holds up the mirror of art in order to show us ourselves and the perils that surround us. But The Circle is neither a tract nor an analysis but a novel, and novels always tell the stories of individuals. …It also incorporates passages of symposium-like Socratic dialogue by which the central character is manipulated, through rational-sounding questions and answers, into performing the increasingly outrageous acts that logic demands of her.” (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/nov/21/eggers-circle-when-privacy-is-theft/)

Turns out, the teacher in question was not familiar with Atwood’s critique but had read one by Ellen Ullman three weeks prior in the New York Times Book Review. Ullman’s conclusion about the book’s literary merit is radically different from Atwood’s.

“This potential dystopia should sound familiar. Books and tweets and blogs are already debating the issues Eggers raises: the tyranny of transparency, personhood defined as perpetual presence in social networks, our strange drive to display ourselves… “The Circle” adds little of substance to the debate. Eggers reframes the discussion as a fable, a tale meant to be instructive. His instructors include a Gang of 40, a Transparent Man, a shadowy figure who may be a hero or a villain, a Wise Man with a secret chamber and a smiling legion of true-believing company employees. The novel has the flavor of a comic book: light, entertaining, undemanding.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/books/review/the-circle-by-dave-eggers.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0)

After reading the book, I began to question further these competing claims. Consider these excerpts.

LA Times: Even as satire, The Circle is disappointing as a novel: the plot is too easy, the prose simple, the characters flat and undistinguishable. Due to these same qualities, however, The Circle succeeds as commentary on the era of big data and transparency. The scary part is that the Silicon Valley of The Circle barely seems like a caricature. (https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/dave-eggerss-the-circle)

Booklist Starred: Eggers brilliantly depicts the Internet binges, torrents of information, and endless loops of feedback that increasingly characterize modern life. But perhaps most chilling of all is his notion that our ultimate undoing could be something so petty as our desperate desire for affirmation.

Kirkus Reviews: Eggers thoughtfully captured the alienation new technologies create in his previous novel, A Hologram for the King, but this lecture in novel form is flat-footed and simplistic. Though Eggers strives for a portentous, Orwellian tone, this book mostly feels scolding, a Kurt Vonnegut novel rewritten by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The Guardian: There are a few weaknesses. Eggers struggles here and there to balance psychological plausibility with the outlandishness of his satirical flourishes; he sometimes needs his characters to behave in ways that seem – certainly when you put the book down – to be wholly implausible. …But this is a prescient, important and enjoyable book, and what I love most about The Circle is that it is telling us so much about the impact of the computer age on human beings in the only form that can do so with the requisite wit, interiority and profundity: the novel. (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/09/circle-dave-eggers-review)

This reminds me that book reviews aren’t perfect, and they certainly aren’t impartial. A plot that makes us examine what we intentionally and unintentionally share online is bound to have readers’ personal beliefs on the subject mixed in. Because I’ve appreciated Eggers’ other works, I’m inclined to believe that some of the bits that I found clunkier were in fact purposeful. There is humor through word play and situational humor. There is no doubt that we are voluntarily giving away some of our privacy. Our phones track our location street by street for GPS or restaurant apps but always know where we are. When we take photos, the technology knows the location, and social networking sites can automatically recognize faces and tag them. Cool but also a bit scary in the wrong hands. Real-life face tracking software was in the news yesterday. The Circle made me stop and think about the ways that technology is using me as a product for companies just as I use technology to make my own life easier. Too often, a book retreats to the back of my mind after reading it. “Good” or “bad,” this is one that returns to my mind as I’m watching the ad with the surfer looking at current wave conditions from his home computer. How can I disagree with The Circle’s motto that “Sharing is Caring?” And yet I have reservations…

If you can’t tell, I’m partially writing this post because I can’t wait until August and so desperately want to discuss the book with someone. If you’re read it or have thoughts on the subject of technology and privacy, I’d love to hear it in the comments below!

Bringing it to the People

My second Pop-Up - we're growing!

I wrote this post way back in fall of 2013, but since there has been a lot of chatter on the listserv about pop-up libraries as a way to promote new books, I thought I would revisit it. (As well, I should sheepishly admit I am overdue on a blog post and am too mired in some quotidian minutiae to give a new post the attention it deserves, so I am recycling in earnest.) Also, this time of year tends to lend itself to retrospectives, clip shows, and Best-Ofs, so it seems timely. I hope. So, see below for my first Pop-Up Library adventure, and feel free to get in touch about the details of how I made it happen. I continue this program today, at a rate of about one per month.

I have been installed here for six years and I recently joked that I had my first “normal” year in 2012: my first year was my first year and I was still finishing my last two credits of library school, my second year I was expecting, my third year I had a new baby, my fourth year we renovated, and finally in my fifth year the dust had settled and things were basically predictable. But suddenly what was to be my second “normal” year in a row took a detour: the administration assigned me to be a sixth grade advisor instead of working with my usual crew of juniors or seniors.

There is much greater interaction between advisor and advisees in the middle school, so I was suddenly able to witness the middle school program at very close range. It reinforced what I had long believed to be true: the middle schoolers are my biggest potential consumers of fiction or pleasure reading, but they have the least access to it.

In the lower school division, the students have regular, devoted library time each week. In the high school, students can come in before school, at lunch, during study hall or any free time to peruse the collection and check out materials. In the middle school there is no dedicated library time (yet! That’s another post, I hope) but they are not free to wander into the library by themselves. As well, many of them have confided to me they feel gingerly about entering a library full of “big kids.” What to do? All those glorious young adult titles, desperate to find readers, and an equal number of sad readers bereft of great books. And don’t even get me started on how I feel about the potential future impact on public libraries – isn’t part of our mission to build regular library users into college and beyond?

And thus, the Pop-Up Library. If the middle school can’t come to the library, the library can come to them, I thought. I cannot claim sole credit for this particular stroke of genius – it was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend who is a local college librarian.

So the library popped up in the cafeteria later that very week: I gathered a selection of very hot current books like the Divergent series, James Patterson’s Maximum Ride books, the Theodore Boone novels, a brand-new copy of House of Hades, and an armful of titles for Halloween. I parked these on a book truck, added a laptop and barcode scanner and printed up some colorful signs. I made sure to announce the event at the middle school morning assembly, emailed the faculty to encourage them to remind the kids, and notified the communications department of the photo op for the newsletter.

Restaurant sign holders are great for this - small but effective.

I set myself up in a corner of the dining commons, arranged the books attractively and before I could even sit down, I had customers – happy, smiling, ready-to-read customers. I circulated more books that afternoon than I had in the entire previous week and there was a ripple effect that lasted for several days, since some students asked about this or that book I had not brought, but could check out and deliver at lunch the next day or to a classroom.

This month's theme is Thanksgiving: Colonial America, the Pilgrims, Native Americans, and family activities like cooking and crafts.

It was so successful I repeated it earlier this month with new titles plus Thanksgiving-related books like Witch of Blackbird Pond, some Ann Rinaldi titles and books about Native American lore and history. The kids tell me they are eager to have it every three weeks or so. To prepare, I have invested in a tabletop poster holder, some book-printed fabric for a tablecloth, sign holders and colorful paper to help merchandise the books enticingly.

Feel free to get in touch with specific questions if you’d like to try launching your own Pop-Up Library – it’s easy, fun, and effective.