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2014 June

25

Jun
2014

In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

In Defense of Teens

On 25, Jun 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

I really didn’t want to comment at all on the article that recently ran in Slate about how it’s shameful for adults to read YA. I haven’t even followed any of the kerfuffle online about it really. Read what you like and don’t worry about what other people think. But the more I thought about it, the more I decided that there is an underlying issue here that needs to be addressed. I’m sure someone else has probably already said this and said it better, so I’m sorry for the repetition.

The problem I see with this article is that it puts teens down by putting down their literature. She essentially says, that garbage is good enough for teens but not real people (adults). I don’t just think it’s the author of the Slate article that holds this sentiment and it isn’t just about the books they read. You see the sentiment of hating teens all over the place. It’s in the dirty looks people give them in restaurants or in movie theaters or even the library. It’s in all the articles that decry the downfall of civilization because all teens do is text and look at Facebook. You see it in articles that say the books written for them are not high enough quality for a grown-up to deign to read. You see it in all the dehumanizing and humiliating rules we place on them at school and, often, at home.

Teens get a lot of flack for just being teens. They can be silly, obnoxious, careless, unkind, and unthinking. But they can be the opposite of all those things too and adults can also be silly, obnoxious, careless, unkind, and unthinking, so let’s not point fingers just at teens. It’s tough being a teen- I remember and I bet you do too. With all the weird and dramatic things you have to deal with as teen, things going on in your brain and body, why add a hostile world of adults to that list? I think teens need supportive adults that believe in their humanity and genuinely want to help them become successful adults. They need safe homes and schools where they can try out their new found maturity and ideas and they need a safe place to fail. A place where they’re failure isn’t going to end with derision or eye rolling from adults.

I worked with teens and you know what? I liked them. A lot. They have a lot of value as people. They’re funny and spontaneous, smart and thoughtful. So, I’m really tired of this kind of rhetoric that says, well it’s okay for teens to read this awful literature (or like these awful shows) but not adults, because it implies that teens are lesser people. And they aren’t.

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18

Jun
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

May Reading Reviews

On 18, Jun 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

This month I decided to plug away at my list of fairy tales. I’m really glad I did, because after one or two titles that I wasn’t so fond of I hit a streak of really wonderful books. I really slowed down this month in my reading so I’m still working my way through the fairy tale TBR pile, so I may come back and add a couple titles. In an effort to keep this post shorter I have linked the titles to their GoodReads records where you can read the plot synopses.

I have three more that I’m going to read, but Andy Weir’s The Martian came in at the library for me and there’s a long list of people waiting for it so I’m shelving the last three fairy tales in order to plow through it. Not that it’s a chore, I can hardly put it down. I’ll write up the other three once I finish them.

Ophelia and the Marvelous BoyOphelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee

This was a book I wasn’t really fond of. It was a little to precious for me. The characters, especially Ophelia, were just a little too twee and sad. The message of overcoming grief and self doubt was also a little to loud for my tastes. But I know there are kids who like these kinds of books and it got tons of starred reviews. Just another case of every reader their book and every book its reader.

It was a loose retelling of the Snow Queen tale and for that it was interesting. I was also really captivated by the museum where the majority of the book was set. It was full of amazing rooms and displays of all sorts of objects from spoons to doll houses to dinosaurs. I wished the book had been more about the museum.

 

The Midnight DressThe Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee

I picked another book by Foxlee completely by coincidence. After slogging through Ophelia I decided I would use the 50-page rule on this one and see if it was the other book or her writing that I didn’t personally enjoy.

The Midnight Dress was incredible. The writing was so beautiful and descriptive. The structure of the story goes between four times or interconnected stories, which could have been confusing, but was handled perfectly. It had the air of a fairy tale, but under the hint of magic it was just a murder mystery.

I was especially taken with the relationships, especially the one between Edie and Rose. Rose is surly and sullen, but Edie takes it in stride and takes Rose under her wing while teaching her to sew. Rose absorbs a lot from Edie without realizing it and the stories Edie tells force Rose to live a little less in her self pity. I was unimpressed with Pearl as a person and friend, but think the friendship between her and Rose is incredibly authentic.

Rose also becomes very enamored with the surrounding environment. She hikes around the beach and up the mountain. I really loved this picture of her being outdoorsy and a bit whimsical, especially since she is normally so closed off and cynical. Again, the writing plays into the beauty of the story here. Foxlee’s descriptions of the Australian forest and coast are so descriptive and evocative. You can’t help but picture the setting and feel as if you are there with Rose, enjoying it.

I want to complain just for a moment about the dress on the cover of the book. It looks like a towel wrapped around that girl, nothing like the dress Rose creates in the story. The color is wrong too, too blue. I wish they had used the dress that’s (also inexplicably) on the cover of Hourglass.

The Glass CasketThe Glass Casket by McCormick Templeman

I need to start this one by talking about the cover (what is it with good books and terrible covers?). I’m sorry, but that girl on the cover looks waaaay too rockabilly. All that red lipstick and red nail polish. It doesn’t fit the story at all and it actually ruined the picture of Fiona in my head. And why is she all sexy with her fingers in her mouth? Also completely off and inappropriate for the story. I’m a little baffled by the title. There is a glass casket, but it only makes a very brief appearance and, unless I missed a major plot point, didn’t play a role in any of the events.

Cover aside, this was another fantastic book. Again, this one was beautifully written. The story was incredibly compelling and while it was super creepy, it wasn’t so scary that I couldn’t read it before bed (I’m a huge chicken when it comes to horror). This one felt a lot more like fantasy and fairy tale than magical realism and it is definitely dark. There is a pretty big twist toward the end, but it didn’t feel like a twist you might predict (although I’m sure it’s possible to predict it). The blurb is a little misleading or maybe confusing because the soldiers have very little to do with the story once they’re found. I don’t know if the blurb is trying to be misleading or if it was just intentionally vague about details. Either way, there’s a lot to this story that isn’t found there including a new family in town that Rowan (the MC) is forbidden to speak to by her father, some mystery surrounding the death of Rowan’s mother, a friendship that will be tested, even a little romance.

The Princess in the Opal MaskThe Princess in the Opal Mask by Jenny Lundquist

I can’t say too much about the specifics of this story because there are several twists, a couple of which I found predictable, probably largely because I’ve read enough to know some of the story tropes. The writing wasn’t anything overly fabulous, the characters were deep enough, but not super complex. But the story was really exciting and enjoyable. As I’ve said many times before, I was not a strong reader or fast reader as a teen, but I wanted to be. This would have been one of those books I would have and could have devoured.

I was invested enough by the first 50 or so pages to actually get frustrated with one of the characters. Elara, one of the main characters and narrators has a male friend she’s known forever. He apparently has some feelings for her. But Elara has endured so much emotional (and physical) abuse at the hands of her adoptive “family” that she has tucked any feeling parts of herself away. Cordon, her friend, kind of upbraids her for not returning his feelings and dismisses her when she shows a tiny spark of her inner turmoil over the feelings she does have for him.

I really appreciated that Elara was a plucky character. She certainly keeps her wits about her and despite all she’s been through she isn’t completely broken. While many of her decisions are selfish, she isn’t incapable of making decisions that take others into account. I also liked that Wilha begins as such a pushover, but comes to find some inner strength. I also like that she still maintains some of her docile characteristics as I think it would be a long journey to totally overcoming a lifetime of passivity. I will definitely be reading the second book.

Curse as Dark as GoldA Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce

This one took a little over one hundred pages to really get going and suck me, but once it did I really liked it. In a lot of ways the writing reminded me of a Victorian novel. The slowness and mundane-ness of parts of the story, the way time crept along, certainly the setting. However the dialogue and syntax was modern which made it much easier to read.

I have to admit, I never found the fairy tale Rumplestiltskin especially disconcerting. I certainly didn’t like that the miller’s daughter married the king who was clearly greedy and forced her to spin gold, but I always kind of thought that was an ends to a means in the story to get her the baby Rumplestiltskin would demand. Plus she’d probably be a fool not to marry a king and the story makes no mention of love, just marriage.

Still, A Curse Dark as Gold is a brilliant retelling that gives the miller’s daughter a name and a lot of agency. As an adult I found her rather exasperating at times, but those moments were few and far between.

 

BreadcrumbsBreadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

I didn’t finish this one. It read like manual for how to be a crappy parent and teacher (not really). I know there are kids with crappy parents and teachers, I’ve been one of those kids (hated by a teacher) and I know these kids need books that reflect them. But it just absolutely breaks my heart to read about them and I couldn’t do it. BUT, what I read was also incredible. Ursu is an talented writer. She really evokes the setting with such descriptive and creative turns of phrase. The characters are totally believable. Obviously, since I couldn’t get past how awful the adults were (and some of the kids). Even the plot was really fascinating and moved along at a good clip without sacrificing characters or setting or mood. Don’t let my hang ups hold you back from reading or recommending this one.

 

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11

Jun
2014

In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

#weneeddiversebooks and Education

On 11, Jun 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

Here I am again, hopping on the bandwagon. Good thing this is a good bandwagon to be on. Between my job I have as children’s book curator for a small company and the library world I feel like I’ve recently become a lot more aware of diversity in children’s publishing (or maybe I should say lack of diversity). I’ve been trying very hard to ensure that I am getting a selection of diverse books. I was really pleased to see the #weneeddiversebooks campaign taking off over the last month or so.

So many of the responses and ruminations on the importance of diversity in literature has focused around race and “seeing yourself” in the books you read. I could not agree more, but as a white, middle class female, raising a white middle class daughter I think the importance (for us) is different.

My daughter has an enormous library of books in our home. So enormous that we have trouble finding space for all the books. So enormous my husband may have banned me from buying more books (champagne problem! I know, I know). While many of the books we have are simply appealing stories or classics, I have also tried very, very hard to use our library (and the public one) to expose my daughter to all kinds of topics. And that includes diverse cultures and people.

I got a decent, private school education. Certainly the best education available in my hometown (thanks, Mom & Dad!). But it was still incredibly lopsided and white in scope. I had inklings, through limited and small projects that we did in high school history, of what was out there in the world, but my eyes were really opened and my curiosity became insatiable in college when I began my anthropology classes. I was exposed to fascinating cultures all around the world and I was amazed. Seriously, if I could read some of the ethnographies I read in college to my daughter now I would. Sadly, she is two and these books just don’t appeal to her yet. Instead I use as many diverse children’s books as I can to build that foundation.

This really came into focus for me the other day when I was listening to PRI’s The World, one of my favorite news shows because it focuses on places outside of the US. There was a story about ethnic tensions in western China between the Han Chinese and the Uyghur people (pronounced wee-gurr). I would have only partially listened to this story had I not recently read The Vine Basket, a middle grade novel about a Uyghur girl and her family. I was excited that I knew who they were talking about and a little bit about the tensions in the region.

But it’s about more than just people half way across the globe. I also want her to know the diversity we have her in our own city. I want her to know that there are people with mental disabilities, with mental illness, who go to bed hungry and scared and cold. I want her to see how lucky she is to have a home, two parents, (eventually) a private school education, the possibility of college. Obviously I don’t want to frighten her now and I don’t want to guilt her, but as she gets older I want her to see that these situations exist. And I think a very good way and a safe way to do this is to let her read about it in books.

So, we need diverse books so we know our world. So we can learn. So we aren’t so focused on ourselves. We need diverse books so the world doesn’t seem so foreign or frightening. We need diverse books so we don’t always see ourselves in our books.

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04

Jun
2014

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Thoughts on September Girls by Bennett Madison

On 04, Jun 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

September GirlsFrom GoodReads: When Sam’s dad whisks him and his brother off to a remote beach town for the summer, he’s all for it– at first. Sam soon realizes, though, that this place is anything but ordinary. Time seems to slow down around here, and everywhere he looks, there are beautiful blond girls. Girls who seem inexplicably drawn to him. 

Then Sam meets DeeDee, one of the Girls, and she’s different from the others. Just as he starts to fall for her, she pulls away, leaving him more confused than ever. He knows that if he’s going to get her back, he’ll have to uncover the secret of this beach and the girls who live here.

I haven’t read many professional reviews of this, so I was totally surprised when I saw its rating on GoodReads and began scrolling through some really scathing reviews. I gather that the biggest complaint about this book is that, on the surface, it seems like a really sexist book (although I think on the surface both Sex & Violence and Crash and Burn seemed a lot more sexist and neither really was). I really disagree with this interpretation, though, so here goes my attempt to talk about a complex book.

Actually, before I start I should say that these are more my thoughts or a loose analysis of the book, not a review. I’m may or may not spoil certain points of the book, although my thoughts are pretty general.

I think generally September Girls is a modern coming of age story for both Sam and DeeDee. But they come of age through different lenses, much as teens (and new adults) do now. Sam’s growing up is seen through and defined by the idea of “being a man”. DeeDee is through how having sex for the first time changes you as a woman, how expectations about you are, in many ways, different after that.

Because the story drew on mythology and legend I think it indicated a deeper meaning to the sexuality and sexism on the surface. Sam doesn’t understand what is meant by “be a man”, but discovers through DeeDee and the Girls both what societal expectations of him are and how backwards and damaging those expectations are. I think DeeDee discovers once you break from the societal expectation of a “good girl” and embrace your sexuality, that you are much freer. This freedom is both figurative and literal. Both are let down by societal expectations in general and in their relationship.

The book is incredibly well written and literary in nature. The pacing was excellent. The characters all had depth and complexity. Even the secondary and minor characters gave the impression of depth. I’m always a little baffled by complaints that minor characters are flat because I sometimes feel like time is better spent developing the main characters and page space is limited. But this book hit home for me how you can at least give the perception of depth even if it isn’t the secondary character’s story.

The ending of the book I think showed how sex and relationships should end. DeeDee was her own woman and the sex made Sam feel limitless, especially in light of the societal expectations we have for sex and relationships. While they were both sad that their relationship ended, it wasn’t a dead weight. It was something they learned from and were able to use to move forward, into their adult lives.

This is a book I would love to read through several times in order to find passages that support all these ideas. Unfortunately this was also a library book (as are all the YA and MG I read) that needed to be returned and I had a stack of other books from the library waiting to be read. I may, in the coming months, return to this though. And I think that speaks volumes about the quality of this book.

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