Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

more on banned books

Here's a fun quiz, in The Guardian. (Linked all over the kidlitosphere already by folks who got to their Guardian feed before I did...)

(I scored 9 out of 13, which is only so-so. Two or three of them I could have looked up right here in the office and done better, but I didn't cheat...)

where I'm writing this week

I'm shifting back to my bimonthly schedule for the Children's Lit Book Group over at LiteraryMama. Though there are plenty of books to write about, my non-sabbatical year this year is keeping me hopping (or, more precisely, grading) in the moments when I might otherwise be writing a column. So look for that one next month.

In the meantime, I'm still writing every week, on Tuesdays, for the Mama, PhD blog at Inside Higher Ed. I'm enjoying the community of readers over there, so why not click over and join us?

[cross-posted at the other blog]

Monday, September 29, 2008

Read a (banned) book

It's banned book week again, the week when the American Library Association reminds us that "free people read freely." I'm proud to say I've read 2007's most challenged book, though there are several on last year's list that I haven't read yet. It turns out that this fall I'm only teaching one book* on the 100 most challenged books 2000-2007 list, but I'll try to make up for it by reminding my students of the issue--in fact, one of their research paper assignments asks them to look into a challenge and analyze it.

For more on book challenges and the like, check out Little Willow's great post over at Bildungsroman. And let me know your favorite banned/challenged book.**

*Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, #65.

**I think mine from the most recent list would be the His Dark Materials trilogy, though there are many great contenders.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Getting out

Can this be? I just added the first movie to my viewing list since we came back from France in July. There have been movies I wanted to see, certainly--and I have gotten out of the house every now and then--but the movies somehow just aren't happening.

Oh, I lied. Or, more likely, repressed. We did take a bunch of kids to see Star Wars: the Clone Wars for Nick's birthday, which I somehow forgot to list. (And, well, I slept through the middle of it, so maybe it doesn't count?) OK, so one movie since the third week of July. What have I been doing instead?

The reading list isn't much better. I did get a bunch of ARCs and read some of them at the end of the summer, but since school started in August it's been all re-reading, all the time. This weekend it's the Twilight series, since I have an idea for a talk--and an abstract due on Tuesday. But otherwise I'm re-reading for classes. And that's all fine--I don't teach things I don't like--but it still cuts into the time available for new books.

So, to recap: I don't get out much, and from August to May I don't take in much that's new, either. But it was fun to go out last night and laugh at the silliness of Get Smart.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Telling our Stories

One of my favorite feminist teachings is the oft-repeated mantra that the personal is the political. This doesn't, of course, mean that George W. Bush offers us advice for daily living (whew!) but that the power structures outside our homes don't necessarily stop at the doorway. We don't like to remember that, always--sometimes we want our decisions to feel free, open, disconnected from political realities. But they rarely are. This week in the Mama, PhD blog over at Inside Higher Ed I tell a little more of my story of balancing academe and family. Like all such stories, it's both idiosyncratic and representative, personal and --possibly-- political. Let me know what you think.

But don't stop there. In Capital-P politics, as you already know, there's a lot going on right now. Literary Mama columnists Ericka Lutz (Red Diaper Dharma) and Shari MacDonald Strong (The Maternal is Political) have terrific columns up now about the election, both telling different, but important, stories.

Two more columns at Literary Mama tell stories that don't feel political at all, stories of farewell. But Rebecca Kaminsky (Down Will Come Baby) and Vicki Forman (Special Needs Mama) know well how their stories of love and care are connected up with larger concerns--of how we treat women's particular health care needs, how we care for disabled children, how our families form part of a larger community of love and care.

The first time I ever wanted to take a political action was when, six months pregnant with my first child, I went to a meeting about doing clinic defense. Heavy with a chosen and deeply-loved child, I knew in my bones, my joints, my aching muscles, just how important it was for all mothers to have that same choice, to know their children were chosen as well. Organizers wiser than I dissuaded me, realizing that my condition would be a distraction, a potentially dangerous one. I've mostly stayed behind the scenes since then, hoping that my words and example in the classroom would be seen as the political statement I knew them to be.

This year I've been a little more mobilized--in July I walked a precinct with my newly-registered-to-vote daughter, and we signed up new voters together in the summer heat. She's spending part of her gap year doing more of that, registering voters and phonebanking and trying to be a part of something bigger than she is. Yesterday she finished working on a voter guide for a local progressive organization, and I saw the pride in her eyes as she told me of sending it off and getting it approved. "People will use my work to help them decide how to vote!" Seeing her and other young people get excited about this election is one of the things that gives me hope for the future--as does this new project, YA for Obama (check out Judy Blume! check out John Green!).

Listen to the stories around you--tell your own--you'll make a difference.

(cross-posted at the other blog)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Today's update

When I'm teaching, everything revolves around the books I'm immersed in, and the books start speaking to my present reality. Right now I'm moving on from Frankenstein to Wuthering Heights in one class, and from Alice in Wonderland to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the other two. And somehow Frankenstein made it into my Mama, PhD blog entry over at Inside Higher Ed today.

In other news, I'm working at home today while I wait for the Verizon installers. The question of the day is, will I finish my grading before they arrive?

(cross-posted at the other blog)

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Link Love

Not much time to post today, but lots of links:

I'm sure there's more, but that will have to do for now.

(cross-posted at the other blog...)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Book Review: Paper Towns

We don't really know each other very well. Even in an age of facebook, blogging, twitter, and text-messaging, our efforts to know and be known are still halting, partial, and frequently stymied by prejudice and preconception. And yet, the effort remains a fundamental human impulse--we keep trying, even as we fail again and again, to make connections that are lasting and meaningful.

Quentin Jacobsen (Q) is a teenager like many others, on the outskirts of high school popularity and relatively comfortable there. He doesn't have a girlfriend or a date for prom, much to his parents' consternation, but he has a group of friends--"band geeks," they call themselves (though Q himself is not in band)--and that's pretty much enough. He does, though, have one thing most band geeks don't have--a history with the most popular girl in school, Margo Roth Spiegelman. She and Q are next-door neighbors, and once in elementary school--before the demands of popularity became quite as pressing--they discovered a dead body in a park while out bike-riding. Although Margo Roth Spiegelman (almost always referred to by all three names) no longer rides bikes with Q--or seems, sometimes, even to know he exists--the incident somehow still defines both of them.

John Green has been publishing smart, funny, and poignant novels about teenagers for three years now, and fans of his previous two novels, Looking for Alaska (Printz award winner for 2006) and An Abundance of Katherines, will not be disappointed by Paper Towns. Margo Roth Spiegelman has a certain resemblance, for example, to Alaska Young, in that they are both young women who become objects of both adoration and speculation. Becoming an object, though, turns out to be a problem for both the girls who are adored and the boys who adore them or speculate about them: we are all more complicated, Green's novels remind us, than the stories others tell about us. Adoring someone from afar may give us a sense of purpose or meaning, but in the end it minimizes both the object and the adorer, who can lose sight of himself in his obsession. Margo Roth Spiegelman, unlike Alaska, both embraces and resists her objectification. She's known all over school for her adventures, most of which seem larger than life, and she delights--or so it seems--in her reputation. But when she enlists Q in one last big adventure, then disappears, she leaves in her wake a mystery that teaches Q and his friends as much about themselves as it does about her.

As in his previous novels, Green here centers his novel on a compelling group of quasi-misfit characters who nonetheless manage not to seem like outsiders or losers. They're folks who have decided--as so many of us do--that high school social hierarchies are not going to do them any favors, so they (mostly) opt out. Realistically, they are also delighted when, on rare occasion, they find themselves invited in: Q's friends' reactions to their sudden popularity late in the novel is as convincing as it is amusing. I love Q's friend Radar--whose nickname is hilariously inappropriate but sticks, as such things often do--who, despite his relative acceptability in the social hierarchy, fears that he can't quite live down his parents' record-setting collection of black Santas. And his friend Ben, obsessed with girls and videogames but childishly delighted by his own outrageous braggadocio. More than once reading the novel I found myself laughing out loud. But as often as it made me laugh, it made me think, and the persistence of Whitman's Leaves of Grass throughout the novel formed an important part of that thinking. Margo Roth Spiegelman uses Leaves of Grass as part of a clue to her mystery, but Green uses it as well to comment on the process Q goes through in finding Margo Roth Spiegelman:

'I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,' Whitman writes. And then for two pages he's just hearing: hearing a steam whistle, hearing people's voices, hearing an opera. He sits on the grass and lets the sound pour through him. And this is what I was trying to do too, I guess: to listen to all the little sounds of her, because before any of it could make sense, it had to be heard. . . . I tried to hear, inside a song I'd never heard before, the voice I had trouble remembering after twelve days. (ARC, 196)

Like Whitman, like Q, Green tries to make us hear those voices: the voices of those whom we admire as well as those we avoid. In Paper Towns, he makes them come alive, in all their ridiculous adolescent angst as well as their honest and poignant earnestness, in their pleasures and their pains. Margo Roth Spiegelman may remain something of a cipher, but at least Q realizes that she is, and why--and that, in itself, is a big step for the boy who has called her his "miracle."

Reading over this review I find that I make it sound somewhat painfully earnest, which it is decidedly not. Or, at least, not only. I don't object to earnestness in fiction, and Q is an earnest type--as are his predecessors Miles and Colin. But he's also funny. Still, I'm afraid you're going to have to read it to find that out for yourself--what's funny in context often isn't, out of context, and all the quotes I pulled sound a little silly in the middle of my prose. Trust me, they work really well right where they belong.

(I read an ARC of Paper Towns which I received from the publisher after mentioning on the blog that I didn't have one yet. Thanks, Jillian!)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

YA writers take on the issues

OK, I've been following the various Palin stories for a while now (and posting about them a little bit on the other blog), but today I read two great posts from YA writers that I just have to highlight. First, John Green talks about Sarah Palin's alleged history of attempting to ban books. Now, as you probably know, YA books get challenged an awful lot, and Green's Looking for Alaska is no exception. However, in his Alaska (a person, not a place, but anyway) no one gets pregnant. And the sex is so unsexy, I can't imagine anyone wanting to emulate it. Nonetheless folks get a bit queasy about it and try to ban it, which is --surprise!-- usually unconstitutional as well as counter-productive, since nothing says "Read Me" like a big "banned in your teen library" notice.

And then Maureen Johnson weighs in on Bristol Palin in the best possible way, by reminding us of the need for comprehensive sex education in schools. (She tells funny and sad stories while she's at it, so go read!) My daughter, who just graduated from high school, helped give a great presentation at her school last year about the same subject because they provided only the briefest sort of "Family Life Education"--uninformative at best, counter-productive at worst. So I'm with Johnson on this one.

OK, back to your regularly-scheduled programming. I think I have a couple of book reviews coming up, if I can just find my notes. And, um, the books. Getting on it, really.

ps to Sarah Beth Durst, who I hope will google her name and read this: I would really love you to take on The Black Bull of Norroway in your series on obscure fairy tales. I just taught it today and it is so mind-bogglingly weird, we barely skimmed the surface. A little bit Beauty & the Beast, a little bit East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and a whole lot of weird, with two burned-up women at the end. Ick.

Oh, too bad!

I'd been looking forward to the film adaptation of Ballet Shoes, a favorite novel from my childhood. (Unlike Jenny, though, my favorite Streatfeild novel was The Painted Garden, otherwise known as Movie Shoes, not this one.) Unfortunately the NYT reviewer doesn't think it's so great.