Jenny's Library

Last February I was able to take advantage of a wonderful opportunity to not only go to ALA Midwinter in Chicago, but also to attend the ALSC’s Day of Diversity.

Diversity, in all it’s meanings, was very much on my mind that weekend as I went to meet and greets, attended panel discussions, joined in on a story time underground session, met people I had previously only known on twitter, listened to publishers sales pitches, got to hear teen’s opinions on the books marketed to them, and wandered around the exhibit hall picking up way too many free books.

One of the sessions I was unable to get to was the incredibly packed Diverse Debuts panel.  Instead, I listened outside the curtain and took notes and kept wishing I had faces to put the the smart words I kept hearing.  I made sure to grab the fiiers they were giving out though, and managed to pick up the ARCs of a number of the books listed.

One of those ARCs was None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio.

When I finally finished a few weeks ago I tweeted:

“FYI @IWGregorio’s None of the Above is fantastic. And if you are a librarian you should order it for your YA collection.”

I’m clearly not alone in this opinion, as it got a starred review from Publishers Weekly, a 5Q from VOYA, and Amanda McGregor of Teen Librarian Toolbox said in bold that “This is an essential purchase for all libraries.

This morning I handed in my rationale (defense, for those of you unfamiliar with library speak) for purchasing the book to my Library Director.  Not because a patron has challenged it, but because, upon hearing about the book, she became nervous that there might be one.

(For the record, I don’t fault her for this.  (So far) she’s simply being a good Library Director, which is one who is aware of potential controversies and is ready for them.  It still makes me nervous though. And I wouldn’t take bets on her keeping the book in the YA collection.  Also….I haven’t had to write a rationale for all of the other titles in the collection that don’t deal with gender identity.)

And then I come home to the news that white men are once again defending their lists of recommended reading that just happen to include only white men with the claim that they are being gender and color blind.

I suggest to anyone who has, or plans to, make any claim of that type that they all read None of the Above and then spend some time thinking about whether or not they “see” gender. Or race. Or any other identity.  Somehow I doubt that these white men who can only ever think of other white men to suggest to others to read would really react any differently than Krissy’s boyfriend does to a revelation like hers.

(“I don’t see gender” my ass.)

But mostly, I just want them to think about how their words are laying the foundation for censorship.

I realize that they think of themselves as intellectual freedom fighters, arguing that we judge the book by it’s literary value! Not the color of the author’s skin! Or the author’s gender.

But if they are really intending to make the argument that these are the best books – that the best books just happen to all be by white men – then they should do that.  They should make that argument. But they can’t.  Because it’s clearly a racist, sexist, and bullshit argument.  It’s a losing argument. So they don’t make that argument.

Instead they claim to not “see” gender or color. Arguing that the rest of us are being sexist and racist by doing so.  That the author’s gender or race should not matter.  Which, by the way, is news to me, as a librarian, because my inability to be an expert in everything means that I routinely judge the quality of books in part based on the author’s experience and expertise, which can and does at times include identity.

Furthermore, by using the idea of color and gender blindness with regards to lists and not simply individual books, they are arguing that such things should not matter even in the aggregate.  That patterns of power and influence are unimportant and unconnected to the capitalist enterprise of publishing and selling books.  That considering whose stories are allowed to be told, and by whom, is a distraction rather than a fundamental question of artistic and intellectual freedom.

By making this argument instead of the other, while they may be obfuscating the issue just enough to convince some people that they are in the right, what they are really arguing is that certain identities are unimportant.

Which means they are arguing that certain stories are unimportant, regardless of who writes them.

Which means that they are arguing that books like None of the Above are superfluous rather than necessary.  That they are only for some people, not for everyone.

Or, at least, that certain stories are not important enough to justify investing in them or fighting for them.  That they are not worth the job risk involved in keeping them on library shelves. On the correct library shelves.

Which means that they are providing ammunition for the people who would rather remove books like None of the Above from library shelves, particularly in youth collections.

“Yes, all the best books I’ve read are by white men,” would be a clueless and infuriating statement, but at least it potentially invites argument and discussion.

“I don’t see color/gender, and you shouldn’t either,” is an attempt to end any discussion or analysis.  It’s a smoke and mirrors justification for the status quo.  It’s an argument against the existence of books like None of the Above – or Ancillary Justice or Kindred or The Handmaid’s Tale or Love is the Drug or Zeroboxer (another excellent Diverse Debut ARC) – all of which revolve around an exploration of ideas like gender and race and identity and privilege.

“I don’t see gender or color!” is not a cry for intellectual freedom, it’s a foundational argument for censorship.

The first time a man creeped on me I was only five.

And yes, I was at a pool. I don’t know if he was someone’s dad, but chances are he was.

I was there for one of my older sister’s swim meets, no doubt, and a grown man said “Hello, Jenny!” as he walked by me.

I said hello back.  And then I asked my mom who he was.  And she said that he was no one.  And she reminded me that my shirt had my name on the back of it.

I don’t ever remember wearing that shirt again.  I’m fairly certain that it disappeared from my closet after that.

(I loved that shirt. Until then.)

The first time that I was ever really truly scared that a man might hurt me I was fourteen.

It wasn’t at a pool, but this time I knew for certain that he was someone’s dad.

I was alone in a car with the husband of one of my mother’s friends.  He was driving me home from babysitting his toddler daughter.  Something that I had done often, with other fathers.  But this one said something about how some people might wonder about him, being alone in a car with me. And so I began to wonder about him, for what kind of person says that to a fourteen year old?

The whole rest of the ride all I could think about was how easily he could reach out and touch me.  How much bigger than me he was.

I never babysat for that family again.

(I also never told my mother why.)

When I read THAT tumblr post, – the one comparing John Green to the dad who scoots his lawn chair closer to the girls in the pool – I didn’t think of the boy who violated my privacy, repeatedly, in order to see me naked when I was only 11.  I didn’t think of the science teacher at my junior high who everyone gossiped about but who wasn’t fired until decades later when he was arrested for raping his nieces.  I didn’t think of the time I was groped on a crowded subway in Paris by a man twice my age and how everyone glared at me when I pushed the groper away.

I didn’t think about the boys and men that I knew abused and harassed.

I thought of the man who called me by my name even though I didn’t know him, even though I was only five.  The man who may have only been friendly or clueless or both, but who scared the shit out of five year old me regardless.

I thought of the dad who chances are was simply one of the most awkward people in the world to ever exist. But who made me feel gross and vulnerable and got me wondering all over again just what was wrong with me that made “good” people think about me in this way.

That’s the dad who scoots the lawn chair closer.  He may be a serial predator, but he probably isn’t because if he was really going to be that obvious about it he would have been caught already.  Or maybe he is and the reason he hasn’t been caught is because there’s just nothing that you, as one of the teen girls, can do about it because all the grown-ups like him and trust him and think he’s swell and know that he would totally never do that.

But really you probably have no idea which he is, you just don’t like it when he does that and you don’t have a way of making him stop and who are you going to tell to ask him to stop anyway?  What will you say to them?  You know that any adult you tell is going to ask if he’s watching you or being inappropriate and the truth is you don’t know, do you?

And god forbid you tell them that he’s creepy or a perv – even though what other language do you have to describe it? – because that’s a serious accusation, missy. Serious business, unlike girls having the right to feel comfortable in the spaces they occupy.  Never mind that if adults believed that your comfort and autonomy was serious business you wouldn’t feel the need to imply actual abuse in order to be listened to, you’d’ get to just say you don’t like it and leave it at that.

But it’s creepy regardless and you’re just a kid and you don’t get to tell the grown-ups to leave so your choices are to ditch your friends or suck it up so of course you suck it up.

You suck it up and you watch him maybe possibly probably watching you.  And watch all the grown-ups being oblivious about it all.  Watch all the grown-ups pretending to be oblivious.

Which brings us back to John Green. Or, more specifically, the media narrative about John Green and his (assumed female) fans, and to some extent the way he reacts to it – or rather doesn’t, and definitely the way a bunch of bestselling authors decided to recently remind a teen girl* online that that’s a serious accusation, missy.

It’s important to point out that the person who posted that analogy to tumblr didn’t tag Green, someone else did.  This matters not because she would deserve the pile on she got if she had done so, but because it’s such a perfect example of adults not moderating their interactions with teens online.  Including but not limited to: not giving teens space (to make mistakes and just in general), assuming a shared language and point of view, and expecting teens to justify their feelings in order for adults to treat them as valid.  Which is precisely the kind of “it gives me a bad vibe” behavior the tumblr user was talking about.

There are sometimes grumbles in the YA Lit community about John Green’s celebrity status, and the way in which the media’s framing of him as the most important thing since sliced bread creates a warped dialogue about YA lit – and of us.   We talk about – although not often enough – how this is related to his identity as a cis, straight, white, middle class man, and the fact that his stories are the YA equivalent of litfic, and are more often than not about white, middle class, cis, straight, teen boys.

Yet Green’s celebrity status is also due in large part to his relationships with his fans.  Green, and his brother Hank, have spent a decade interacting with teens online in an incredibly intimate way.  Not necessarily an inappropriate way, but certainly with a level of engagement and discussion between teens and adults that is usually seen only within classrooms and libraries, not between celebrities and fans.

When this was being done on a much smaller scale, it was easier for both Green brothers to employ the kinds of decisions and choices that teachers and librarians and coaches and other adult mentors use in order to signal to teens that they are capable of giving them space, of backing off, of letting them be when appropriate.  But the more important John Green has become in the eyes of the press, and the larger his fanbase has become, the less effective those tactics become, and the less likely they are to be seen by the teens that need to see them.  The kind of obsession that the media has with John Green creates a forced sense of intimacy between him and his fans, and this has been gradually superseding the real and more responsive intimacy that Green has spent years building.  It no longer works for Green to merely step back from teens when they need him to, because the rest of us no longer let him step back from the public in general.  (Which means teens have a harder time stepping back when they feel uncomfortable as well.)

On top of all that you have the media depicting his teen fans as not only being almost exclusively female, but usually as a horde of hormonal teen girls with crushes on both John Green and the actors who play the characters he writes.  As opposed to, say, being fans of award winning books and active readers who engage with the texts on an intellectual level.  The media never sees or treats Green as a mentor to these young women, nor does the media acknowledge any of these girls’ artistic aspirations and how that might factor into their admiration for Green.

John Green doesn’t think of his fans the way the media does, of course, he knows that his fans are more mature than the media frames them to be, and that they are worthy of adult respect.

This dynamic is a recipe for abuse.

It doesn’t matter if Green himself would never take advantage of it, the fact is that the media narrative has helped build him up as that one adult who treats teens as equals, while also creating an expectation that the relationship between Green and his young female fans is founded upon heterosexual lust, at least on the part of the fans.

This is an incredibly dangerous narrative.

This is the kind of dynamic that Gaby Dunn recently warned teen girls and young women about on twitter.

John Green may never scoot or his lawn chair closer, or anything similar.  But the media has been more than happy to do it for him.  And we, the adults, just keep standing around acting oblivious to it all.

Worse than that.  When a teen girl recently tried to point all this it out – not to us, but to her friends – one of us overheard and made sure John Green also heard what she said.  We didn’t stop to consider that, to a teen who lacks the power that adults do, the media’s framing of who that adult is and the adult’s actual opinions and choices may diverge more than they realize.  We didn’t think about the fact that this dynamic does exist, both in the Nerdfighter and YouTube communities and out of them, and the lack of language that teens may have to describe it.

And then a large number of bestselling YA authors joined in to make sure that teens everywhere understood that these are serious accusations, missy.

At no point did any** of us bother to listen to her, ask questions, consider her point of view, or argue that she deserves space and that the adults need to leave her the fuck alone.

I’ve been disappointed with YA authors and the YA community in the past – we are human after all, we are bound to mess up – but I’ve honestly never been quite this disappointed.

This is the quote, by the way, for those of you who haven’t read it:

“i bet john green thinks people don’t like him because he’s a “dork” or a nerd or whatever, when in reality it’s because he’s a creep who panders to teenage girls so that he can amass some weird cult-like following. and it’s always girls who feel misunderstood, you know, and he goes out of his way to make them feel important and desirable. which is f–king? weird?…also he has a social media presence that is equivalent to that dad of a kid in your friend group who always volunteers to “supervise” the pool parties and scoots his lawn chair close to all the girls.””

Someone explain to me how that’s substantially different from anything I’ve said in this post.  And is anyone really interpreting my post as accusing Green of being a sexual predator?

I do not understand what the point was, in responding to this tumblr post – directly or otherwise.  I don’t understand what anyone involved hoped to accomplish.  I don’t understand how anyone thought that this reaction would make it easier for teens to get help when someone is hurting them, or make teens more confident in setting boundaries, regardless of the reason.  I don’t understand what kind of self-absorbed reaction caused so many people whose work relies on understanding language to decide that this person simply disliked Green or his books and was merely tossing random accusations at him for that reason.

That’s not at all what the poster said, and that’s not treating teens as people with opinions worthy of being listened to.

I don’t understand how so many people that claim to love and understand teens could so easily and quickly forget the differences in power between us and them, and how that not only colors how teens interpret what we say and do, but also the kind of language teens use when describing adults’ actions.  Particularly actions they rightly deem unsafe, uncomfortable, unfair, unhealthy, or dangerous.

I don’t understand how, a mere week after a black teen girl in a bikini was assaulted on camera by a white, adult, male police officer***, we could so quickly forget how dangerous it is for teens to speak up, particularly against white, adult men with authority and status.  That so often they need to be at the breaking point before they deem it worth the risk, and how that affects their framing of their situations.

Perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I don’t want teens to tell me they feel uncomfortable only when they are sure they can do so in words that won’t upset me.

In any case, I think it’s clear that some of us are forgetting to be awesome.

Which brings me to another point that I want to make (despite how long this is already).

While the original poster has every right to express her discomfort on her own blog regardless of how much “evidence” there is for her discomfort, or how many people may or may not feel the same discomfort, it would be remiss of me to not point out that there is a lot more to worry about here than simply how the media is framing Green as a Personality and his Fans as Hormonal Teenagers.

There have been not one but several instances of adult men in the VidCon/YouTube and Nerdfighter/DFTBA communities that have been found to be abusing teenage girls.  Sometimes those being abused were girls in those communities and, in at least one instance, the teenager in question first came into contact with her abuser at VidCon itself.

The Green brothers’ response to these incidents, and the organizational responses form VidCon and the Nerdfighter forums, has not been what it could be, to say the least.  (VidCon in particular dragged their heels when it came to creating a harassment policy, failed to respond to questions about having one right up until one was finally posted, and now have the audacity to put it on their website with a link that states “Of course!” they have one.)

One of the patterns that emerges when reading their posted responses back to back is that the Green brothers don’t seem to be able to discuss sexual abuse without mentioning how harmful false accusations are.  (And do I really need to explain why this is incredibly counterproductive?)

When the Mike Lombardo’s actions became known, in 2012, John and Hank wrote:  “In thinking about this terrible situation, it’s important to remember that no one has been charged with a crime, and that we don’t (and can’t and shouldn’t) know the full story.”  While strictly true, I’m not entirely certain what purpose this disclaimer serves.  If it was merely a legal one, this should have been mentioned – without it, the sentence comes across as typical “both sides” language that discredits victims.

Yet apparently Hank, at least, seems to feel that, when the topic is false accusations rather than sexual abuse, he’s able to know the full story without criminal investigations because in 2014 he wrote “I want to reiterate that posting false accounts of abuse undermines the legitimate problems we’re facing and mocks the difficulty that victims face in coming forward and it is a terrible thing to do.” He posted this in response to a series of reports of abuse made about a number of YouTube celebrities, some of which were never substantiated.  Hank may indeed have knowledge that gives him reason to be certain these particular accusations were false, but his readers do not.  Readers who are still being abused, particularly children and teens, are unlikely to trust that they will be believed when we employ this kind of language and emphasis.

And, of course, a large number of people responded to the tumblr post I quoted above by emphasizing how harmful false accusations are.  One of which was John Green himself, who doubtless set the tone for those defending him when he said: “Throwing that kind of accusation around is sick and libelous and most importantly damages the discourse around the actual sexual abuse of children. When you use accusations of pedophilia as a way of insulting people whose work you don’t like, you trivialize abuse.”

I’d just like to make it clear that the only people I see trivializing abuse are those rushing to misinterpret the tumblr post in question, especially those that jump all the way to warning people that these are serious accusations, missy.

Another harmful pattern that I see is the way that, in the wake of allegations and instances of sexual abuse, the Green brothers keep emphasizing the special-ness of the Nerdfighter community.  Their post on the topic in 2012 was at least limited to talking about how the community came together in the wake of the news of abuse.  Still, I question how useful that kind of language is when there are no doubt other victims within the community who are still afraid to speak.  Statements like that can be incredibly isolating for those still being abused.  And it turns out that there were teens in the community who were being abused at the time by other members of the community.

Those teens didn’t tell for several more years and I can’t help but wonder if a different approach, and a more thorough review of VidCon or Nerdfighter policies, might have resulted in these girls getting help that much sooner.

Worse though is the fact that last year Hank wrote: “thank you to this entire community for upholding these values in a way that I don’t think any other community in the world would be able to.”  This kind of language frames the community in question as unique and special.  Which feeds into the way in which minor victims are groomed.  It also blinds you, yourself, to the reality of abuse and always makes it harder for victims to come forward because it turns any accusation against a community member into an accusation against the community itself.

There are appropriate times to talk about your community being special, to build communities up and give people  confidence that their community is still a worthy one. In the wake of a series of reports of sexual abuse by community members is not one of those times.

No doubt many people who read this will think that I’m parsing and judging John and Hank Green’s words unfairly.  And also reading stuff into what they are saying that isn’t there.  To which I say, they both write words for a living, they are adults, and I’m giving them a hell of a lot more leeway than John Green gave to the person he claimed was accusing him of sexual abuse.

These are, of course, just a handful of quotes from a handful of posts about this topic.  But how we as adults respond to allegations of abuse and statements of discomfort is one of the most important ways that we signal to teens and children that we take their safety seriously – or don’t.

Would you like to know why I never told my mother about her friend’s husband?  It was in no small part because of how hard it had been to tell her about the boy that I mentioned earlier – how hard it had been to tell her about what he had been doing to me.  Part of what made it hard was the way in which she reacted when I did tell, which was not with outright disbelief, but in a way that mirrors the responses I’ve seen from the Green brothers.  A way that made it seem to me that it wouldn’t be worth going through that for such a small thing.

(Edited to add: Oh I also didn’t tell because of people saying stupid ignorant harmful bullshit like “Think before you accuse, so that the accusations that are true, and founded, and real make the impact they should.” Because I guess teens and children are supposed to be sure that the people hurting them are doing wrong things before they speak up. WTF?!?!?! ****)

But if we want to help children and teens be safe from the “big’ things, we need to make it worth it for them to share the small things as well.

And it doesn’t work to merely say “We do not want anyone to take our response as a sign that any person should not voice their experiences.”  You have to demonstrate that it’s safe for them to do so.

While Hank and John’s words from 2012 have me wondering what might have been, Hank’s words from 2014 and John’s words from this year have me wondering what is happening now that we aren’t hearing about.

ONE LAST THING thank you to Sarah Hamburg for helping me with links and to lots of friends for helping me clarify my thoughts, particularly Camryn, Jeanne, the other Sarah H, and both Liz B’s.

*The user in question has deleted her tumblr post. Which means that I have no idea of her age or gender, but let’s be honest neither do the adults who were chastising her for her comments on her own tumblr.  Neither do the ACTUAL NEWS OUTLETS who quoted her tumblr post.  Personally, I think we all should have erred on the side of caution, and her language and perspective suggests that she’s both female and young, so I’m writing this post under that assumption because I believe it’s a possibility that my fellow adults should have considered when responding to the post.

**ok obviously some of us did, but clearly not enough to keep this mess from happening

***If I had the relevant background knowledge, I would be adding several paragraphs up above about the fact that the police were called to that pool party in Texas by racist white women who were upset when insults and other violence were not enough to make the black teenagers leave, and so they called the police to do it for them, and the police were more than happy to oblige.  And how there’s a definite parallel happening here with the YA authors defending Green being largely white and middle class themselves, also women, and how it tends to be young women of color that are most targeted for abuse and least likely to be believed. And how maybe we should also be talking about and considering that.  Instead I’m just going to leave this here because I think it deserves some kind of mention, but I don’t really know enough to do anything more than point at it.

**** So apparently Uplift, a Nerdfighter/DFTBA related blog/org created in the wake of last years sexual abuse revelations, and the authors of that quote, has “decided to work on a set of resources to help work through this complex issue.” PLEASE DON’T. PLEASE STOP POSTING BULLSHIT THAT IS CLEARLY IGNORANT OF HOW MINORS EXPERIENCE SEXUAL ASSAULT, ESPECIALLY AT THE HANDS OF ADULTS.

cover image for Karen MemoryKaren Memory by Elizabeth Bear

Karen Memery, like most citizens in Rapid City, is just trying to do what she can to get by, and maybe even save a little something for a better future.  But Fate has other plans for her.  Like falling in love, helping a US Marshal catch his man, and preventing a villain’s treasonous plot.

There ever so are many things to love about Karen Memory.  Its steampunk Wild West setting, Karen’s  practical and distinctive personality, and of course the developing relationship between Karen and Priya.  Most especially the way Karen falls so quickly and so hard, yet doesn’t let herself push Priya (who is suffering from trauma and worry for her sister) for more than she might want or be capable of.

I think what I like best about it though is the way that its fictionalized historical setting, rather than being used once again as an excuse to focus on the usual suspects or to write characters and situations that reinforce modern bigotry, becomes instead a way to highlight the truth that we – that all of us – have always been here all along.  Karen’s occupation as “seamstress” (and the tongue in cheek way that she talks about providing sexual services) works in tandem with this argument by demonstrating that respectable society’s views of those so often only written into the margins of history books has little to do with their lives, capabilities, and impact.

Karen Memory was originally conceived as a young adult novel (Karen herself is in her late teens), and it makes me incredibly sad and frustrated that the market is such that it instead was published under an adult imprint.  I believe it still works as a young adult novel – especially for older teens – and so I strongly encourage my fellow YA librarians to make sure your adult section has it handy for recommendations.  Need a book that has adventure, romance, mystery, friendship, lgbtqia content, characters from several different racial and ethnic backgrounds, steampunk contraptions, shootouts, and deals spectacularly well with sexual assault and consent?  Here is your book.

I just want to add two more content notes about Karen Memory, for my fellow librarians in particular:

First, that there were a few bits about Tomoatooah, the US Marshal’s posseman, that made me wish I could find a review of the book from someone more familiar with Comanche culture and Native American stereotypes in American literature.  He is very much a fully realized character, and is not portrayed in an intentionally negative light.  But some aspects of how he was written had me wishing I had a more knowledgable opinion to consult.

Secondly, I want to clarify that while much of the story takes place in a brothel, there is no actual depiction of sexual acts. Sex, sexual services, and sexual assault are all discussed – when it affects the characters and plot.  All of which I consider appropriate for teens.  But despite the setting, Karen Memory has no soft-core, male-gaze, porn-like descriptions of female characters or sexual acts, unlike a great many other adult SSF novels that are themselves recommended to teens all the time.

cover image for Court of FivesCourt of Fives by Kate Elliot

Jes and her three sisters couldn’t be more different, and they fight and squabble as siblings do. Yet when it comes down to it, they’ve got each others backs.  Which is fortunate, as she needs their help to do what she loves best: training for the Fives, a sport that requires quick thinking, agility, stamina, and strength.  But when Jes’ father returns from war, her plans to finally compete – something he would never approve of – are thrown in disarray.  Soon the rest of her life is as well, and Jes will need to use all of the skills that make her a great athlete to keep her family safe.

full disclosure, before I get into WHY THIS BOOK IS SO AWESOME AND YOU SHOULD READ IT:acknowledgements page from Court of Fives

(yeah, I really just put that there bc: OMG)

I adore Kate Elliot’s books, and Court of Fives is no exception.  I’ve been eager to see how/what she does with YA, and now that I have I’m so very glad she did.  I love the way that Elliot handles Jes as an athlete, and her relationships with her sisters.  And I especially love that she made Jes’ social standing so complex, that it’s not as simple as her family being rich and her father having status, nor simply that Jes and her sisters are biracial in an extremely racist society.

And I really, really, really, would love to go into more detail about WHY this book is so awesome, but it’s not coming out for another half a year, and I may want to pitch a longer/actual review.  SO YOU WILL ALL JUST HAVE TO WAIT.

Sorry! I know you all hate me now. I promise I will rave about this book in much more detail this summer, closer to when it comes out.

cover image for The Agency: A Spy in the HouseThe Agency: A Spy in the House by Y. S. Lee

Twelve year old Mary Quinn was supposed to hang for her crime.  Instead she was given a chance to start a new life as a pupil at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls.   Now, five years later, seventeen year old Mary Quinn knows that she should be grateful for everything she has been given – and she is – yet the idea of spending her life as a tutor at the school or as a maid in someone else’s house fills Mary with dread rather than hope.  She’s not afraid of work, but she can’t help wishing that there were other options out there for an young lady with education but no family or fortune.  Then, for the second time in her life, she’s given a once in a lifetime opportunity – this time, to be trained as a spy.  But can Mary keep not only the Agency’s secrets safe, but also the Agency from learning the truth about her own heritage?

This book has so many awesome moments. It also, unfortunately, has a bit too much boyfriend and not enough roller derby for my tastes.*  Still, it’s a lovely book that manages to be delightfully surprising in many ways.  It also does a wonderful job of handling Mary’s secret, which happens to be that [she’s biracial, passing for white. Also, that her mother sometimes earned her way as a sex worker.]   Mary’s status, situation, and relationships make this book a refreshing contrast to the more typical young adult novels set in Victorian London, which tend to be about young ladies of a certain social class, and treat the few non-white characters in them as oddities and visitors rather than Londoners.

*the phrase is from lj user buymeaclue.  I’d link, but the journal is now friendslocked. :p

cover image for Dragonbreath: No Such Thing As GhostsDragonbreath: No Such Thing as Ghosts by Ursula Vernon

It’s Halloween night and Danny and Wendell – and the skeptical, scientific minded Christiana Vanderpool – have just encountered something far more dangerous than any monster: Big Eddy the bully. When Big Eddy dares Danny to go inside a house that everyone says is haunted, Danny isn’t worried about being seen as a coward, but he figures the house can’t possibly be any worse than having to deal with Big Eddy, no matter how scary it looks.  But is Christiana right? Are there really no such things as ghosts? Or is there really something not quite living lurking inside?

The comfort of series is that we know what we are getting. Which can sound boring and immature, but often that depends on the reader and author.  When you are 8 and still learning to read, familiarity is actually a useful trait to find in a book.  And there’s nothing boring about knowing that what you are going to get is an excellent story.  For even five books in, Vernon’s Dragonbreath series is still brilliant and funny and clever and fresh.

There’s lots to adore about this series, as I’ve talked about before, but what struck me most while reading this installment is how well-rounded the female characters are.  Quite often books that feature boys and/or are meant “for boys” (by people who divide books up in that sort of way) have female characters that are caricatures, but not so here. Dragonbreath may focus on boy characters, but the girls and women (or, rather, female lizards and such) all have personality and opinions.  And even when their opinions are incorrect (according to the boys, or the narrative) they are never framed as unreasonable or silly or lesser.  They remind me a bit of Sayer’s books in that sense, despite the obvious other differences.

cover image for Lulu and the Dog From the SeaLulu and the Dog From the Sea by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Priscilla Lamont

When Lulu, her parents, and her cousin, Mellie, spend a week in a cottage by the sea they discover an unexpected guest – the kind that walks on four legs.

A cute story that is designed to appeal to the large number of newer readers that love animals.  Each of the characters has personality, and while the plot may be unlikely, the day to day discoveries and frustrations and interactions ring true.

It’s not the most spectacular writing, but it’s far from stilted, which is all too common in when books for this age group.

cover image for When I Grow Up: Sally RideWhen I Grow Up: Sally Ride by AnnMarie Anderson, illustrated by Gerald Kelley

A biography of Sally Ride, written at about third grade level.

Unfortunately, this particular easy reader does all kinds of things that are common to easy readers that I hate, especially nonfiction easy readers.

The first is that it’s just not very well done. The sentences make sense, but they aren’t memorable either.  The illustrations lack elegance and just don’t flow. Worse, the practice of using photographs, and then drawing images of Sally Ride into them rather undermines the idea that this is a real person.  It’s also written in the first person, as if Ride herself was talking to us, despite the fact that Sally Ride was a real person who died recently and wrote words of her own that could be quoted.

It’s not so awful that I wouldn’t buy it for the library, especially considering the topic, but it’s the kind of book that makes me wish we had higher standards for beginning readers.

cover image for Shin-chi's CanoeShin-chi’s Canoe by Nicola I. Campbell, illustrated by Kim LaFave

When Shi-shi-etko and her younger brother, Shin-chi, are sent to a residential school, they have to leave not only their parents behind, but also the names their parents gave them as well.  The siblings are sent to separate dormitories and not allowed to speak to each other, or in their native language.  But before they are forced to part, Shi-Shi-etko gives Shin-chi a small toy canoe, to remind him of the family who loves him, and that one day will all be together again.

This is not a happy book, but it is a beautiful book. A lovely, sad story about colonialization and destruction, and strength and importance of family.  All told with gorgeous text and illustrations.

cover image for Stanley the FarmerStanley the Farmer by William Bee

Stanley the Hamster spends a busy day on his farm.  With help from friends, he manages to get everything done.

(ok, for the record, unbound galleys of picture books are weird. now, moving on…)

A simple, cute story, that condenses the time needed to grow and harvest, but has bright pictures and the right amount of detail for small children.

cover image for Blue on BlueBlue on Blue by Dianne White, illustrated by Beth Krommes

Cotton clouds.
Morning light.
Blue on blue.
White on white.

A peaceful, sunny day is interrupted by rain and thunder and lightning, but before the day is done, the sun comes back to say goodbye and goodnight.

It’s a very nice book, and decent enough poem, and I love Krommes’ style (with the exception of some of the peoples’ facial expressions).


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