Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘libraries

Here is the breakdown of the massive list I posted on Monday:

I read a total of 207 books last year.

bar graph of types of books read in 2013

Nearly a third (68) were young adult books, and another third were board books and picture books (25 and 45, respectively).  Middle grade novels (28) and adult novels and stories (35) each made up another sixth of what I read last year.  I also read a handful of easy readers and non-fiction books (4 each).

80%  (169) of the books I read last year were written by women, but only 14% (29) were written by writers of color.


I’m not terribly concerned that only 20% of the books I read were written by men; there are plenty of people with much more influence than I do that seem to read and talk about only male writers, so it can’t possibly hurt for me to read and talk up female writers.  In fact, it’s clearly still needed. Also, I’m probably still balancing out what I read when I was younger.

That 14% does concern me though, especially considering what I do.  My reading and talking about that low a percentage of authors of color doesn’t just impact my circle of friends and what they read, it means that when I do reader’s advisory, when I create book lists and displays, and when I order books for the library, the vast majority of the books that come to mind will be by white writers.  Even if I try to do searches and peruse recommended lists in order to make these all more balanced, the titles I find that way are not going to take emotional priority or stay in my head the way that the books I’ve actually read will. Which means that I’m not doing my job and that I’m failing the children I’m supposed to serve.

So my goal for this year is to double that percentage, for at least one third of the books I read this year to be by a writer of color.

I hope to eventually increase that number to an even larger percentage, to better match the demographics among children in the US.  But I also know that only 10% of the children’s books published in the United States are written by an author of color, and I don’t know at what point (if ever) that reality will begin to make such goals difficult.  And for this year (because of my time and budget) I wanted to start with a goal that I know is easily doable.


cover image for DeliriumDelirium by Lauren Oliver

Lena is almost old enough to be cured – of Love.  She can’t wait until she no longer has to worry about becoming sick, like her mother was.  But we need a plot, so of course she falls in love with another uncured before the procedure can happen.

With a different premise – one that actually makes a tiny bit of sense – this wouldn’t have been a bad book, only pedestrian.  Sadly, though, we don’t get any kind of logic.  This isn’t a Vulcan type suppression of all emotion, nor a focus on romantic love only. It is, for no apparent reason, a singling out of Love of all kinds.  Including the love parents have for their often obnoxious and time-consuming offspring. Yet no explanation is given for how this utopia managed to curb infanticide.  As this bad bit of world-building was just one of a great many things that annoyed me about this book, I strongly suggest not attempting to read it.

Cover image for Hold FastHold Fast by Blue Balliet

Early’s home has never been fancy.  But she’s always had one, and her parents have worked had to provide for her and her brother – and to fill their lives with words, poetry, and books. But when her father, Dash, goes missing and thieves ransack their apartment, Early, Jubilation, and their mother, Summer, are left with no choice but to move into a city shelter. Will Early ever have a home again? And how can she find her father when her world is in such disarray?

A respectful and suspenseful story about what it really means to be a child without a home.  The neatness of the ending stretched belief, but it’s appropriate in a novel for elementary school readers and it managed to stay away from false platitudes.  It may give some kids hope, or at least help them feel less alone, and it will certainly expose many to the challenges that other children face.

cover image for The Truth About ForeverThe Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen

Macy has the perfect boyfriend. The only problem is that he’s going to be away for the summer, leaving Macy to fill in at his job at the library.  But even though her coworkers hate her and she’s not a genius like Jason, Macy is determined to be perfect at it anyway. Because being perfect is the only thing that has kept everything from falling apart.

Drama! Angst! Romance!  Everything one expects from a Dessen novel, including the protagonist figuring out how to talk to her mothe.  And realizing that she deserves a better boyfriend than the one she has.  Not Dessen’s best, but entertaining enough.

cover image for Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big HillBetsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill by Maude Hart Lovelace

Betsy and Tacy and Tib are old enough to go on even more adventures by themselves, and wander even farther from home than before.  They aren’t sure that their parents would be pleased to discover that they’ve gone all the way over the Big Hill and into the town below.  But when they meet a very interesting girl from the other side of the hill while picnicking atop it, they figure they only polite thing to do is to go visiting.

Now this was a fascinating story to read.  I was rather pleasantly surprised to find not only a Syrian community in a book written almost 75 years ago, but also a fairly respectful description of said community.  Although, not one completely without Fail.  Also, the entire story culminated in a parade that wasn’t just a celebration of America, but very much about American superiority over the Syrian’s homeland.  Still, despite its faults, I’m very much tempted to keep a copy on hand for the next time someone talks about diversity in children’s books as if it were a recent liberal invention.  Not to mention the next time someone tries to argue that we’ve made great strides in that area! – yeah, not as much as you think; I’ve definitely read books that are both more racist and more recently published.

cover image for OrleansOrleans by Sherri Smith

I’m going to attempt to do a proper review for this soon, so for now all I’m going to say is that it’s awesome and you all should read it.

I ran into a fellow youth librarian that I know, but haven’t seen in a while, at the LA Times Festival of Books (I know! what are the odds! anyway…).  At one point when we were talking she asked me which age of kids I preferred working with.  I used to have an answer to that, back when I subbed in schools.  I don’t anymore.  I think in part because I have more flexibility of choice in the library; it’s easier to set up library programs so that they bring out the best in each age, rather than having to handle the worst of each age for an entire school day.

I think the other reason is because my current position really emphasizes childhood and adolescence as a continuous process.  Teachers get kids at one age, and then see them grow incrementally throughout the year.  I go from working with toddlers to teens to preschoolers to elementary age students all in the space of a week.  Then I do it all over again the next week.  Teachers see kids grow, but only up to a certain point, at which time they are replaced by kids the age the outgoing class they used to be.  I, on the other hand, see kids move from our baby classes to our toddler classes and so on.  If I worked here long enough, I could see them move all the way up to being a parent with their own baby.

Which may be part of why I’m finding the number of people talking about young adult literature in comparison to adult literature, but not in comparison to children’s literature, to be increasingly annoying.  There hasn’t really been an upsurge in people doing it (except that there has been an upsurge in people talking about young adult literature) but I’m fast losing patience with it.

I understand why it happens.  Adults who add a handful of young adult titles to their reading lists are hardly going to do the same with picture books or middle grade novels.  And yet…I don’t actually understand it.  I love picture books and don’t really understand anyone who doesn’t.  I’ll still like you as a friend, but I don’t really get not liking Portis’s Not a Box or Gravett’s Orange Pear Apple Bear.  And I think all of you science fiction and fantasy fans that aren’t reading at least a couple of Ursula Vernon’s Dragonbreath series are totally missing out.

Most of all though, talking about how books for teens are different from books for adults, without also talking about how books for teens are different from books for kids, just makes no sense to me.  It’s like talking about how teens are not like adults without having any understanding of how they used to be as children.  There’s often an implicit understanding, when talking about the things 17 year old drivers do, that not that long ago they were only 15 and couldn’t drive themselves anywhere.  But when people mention The Hunger Games and where it fits in the larger dystopia canon, it’s only ever adult books that are mentioned, not the middle grade dystopias, such as The Giver, the Shadow Children series, A Wrinkle in Time, or The City of Ember, the books that shaped it’s target audience’s expectations for how such stories should go.

This problem seems to be especially bad when it comes to science fiction novels.  I think, in part, because most adult science fiction literature fans were nerds as children and read adult books more often than most children tend to.  But also because many adults just aren’t aware that adult genres don’t exist in children’s – or even teen – literature the way they do in adult literature.  When adults study children’s literature in school, whether as English students or library science students, we don’t talk about mysteries, speculative fiction, horror, and romance.  We talk about animal stories, historical fiction, school stories, and other genres that are much more popular among actual children.  Which isn’t to say that adults genres don’t exist in children’s literature, it’s just that they don’t have quite the same presence, and their tropes and themes are often very different.

Modern ideas about school and home are present in dystopias for children and young adults in a way that they aren’t, usually, in adult fiction.  It goes beyond simply being a warped version of the world they know, it’s also about development and how children perceive the world around them.  So the kids in Camazotz are still playing ball – because children’s sense of time and play and the way their actual memory works means that synchronized bounces read as wrong in a way that never getting to play with balls at all does not.  The children of Ember still go to school, in part because we assume that American children would have a hard time seeing themselves in kids who did not.  Teens in Delirium have tests they must pass, because while we are borrowing from Romeo and Juliet here, modern teens (supposedly) need an institution rather than a political alliance to rail against.  Jonas and Katniss both have mandatory assemblies to attend, despite the danger of populous action they present, because what’s more benignly oppressive than a pep rally?

These are all tropes and traditions that go beyond just science fiction for teens.  You can draw parallels to adult science fiction novels, but you can also do the same for contemporary novels like Looking for Alaska, in which a school assembly is a dramatic turning point and the site of student rebellion, or Lowry’s historical Number the Stars, which features a different child defying an entire country.

I could go on, but the point is that there are traditions and tropes present in young adult literature that readers will miss out on if they are no longer familiar with stories about mice on motorcycles or spiders than can spell, not to mention the subgenere of “preteen girl loses mother tragically.”  This isn’t to say that all of these tropes are interesting or that children’s or young adult literature can’t or shouldn’t change – just that a lot of what young adult literature does makes so much more sense if you’ve Dr. Seuss or Judy Blume more recently than several decades ago.

Chapter 1: Prohibitions

(In which I meander quite a bit and talk a lot about libraries.)

Now that school is out, I have time to read books that are not teen novels.  Books like: How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ.

Reading a Book by Ernst RudolphIn the first chapter Russ immediately tackles the false idea that hurdles must be codified into law in order to matter.  In fact, the prohibitions Russ focuses on first are economics and time, not even yet the cultural memes that women should not be spending their time on silly frivolities such as novel writing or painting.  In many ways I found this point, the one about women (and other non-dominant groups) having less leisure time in which to be creative, to be the more important one.  Perhaps because I was already familiar with the subtle and even overt ways in which women are pressured not to create art.  Perhaps because recent events – both in my own life and on a national and world-wide scale – have me thinking more about the right to leisure time.

Leisure time and affording the time to be creative are not the same thing, but they are inexorably linked.  It is not just that if one cannot afford the time to read one is less likely to be able to afford the time to write.  I think even more fundamental is the oft unspoken idea that if one cannot afford the time to read, one has not earned the right to be heard.

I am not nearly as nationalistic as I was several decades ago, but one thing I do still firmly believe that is that a democracy’s strength depends upon how many of its (different kind of) citizens participate in the process.  Not just voting, but in policy, debate, and even the creation of the culture that citizens are immersed in.  I am deeply worried about the trend I see, in my own country especially, that views the technology that is needed to access mainstream culture as being nothing more than a luxury.  Even putting aside for a moment the antiquated, classist, and ignorant idea that access to a computer and mobile phone are not necessary for such fundamental needs as finding work, the attitudes towards technology and class that many of my fellow Americans display is both appalling and frightening.

photo of baby with cell phoneThis is not just about the fact that easy access to technology means an increased ability to be aware of current events, and the digital divide means that many citizens are cut off from the mainstream conversation (and mainstream conversation is even less aware of their needs and opinions).  This is also about story and art, and how there is no real concrete division between works that “improve” readers and those that do not.  One of the things you learn in library school is how modern public libraries were not a response to the impossibility of everyone owning all the books ever, but rather about radically improving on the already existing and popular subscription libraries – both commercial, which were open to anyone who could pay, and private, which required one be approved for membership.  Public libraries are fundamentally democratic in history and nature not because they are about access to information, but because they are about equalizing access.  Furthermore, they are not just about facts and opinions, but literature and leisure time as well.  In asserting the right to read, public libraries end up defending not only privacy but also the idea that people of all classes and groups have the right to decide for themselves how their free time is best spent.  It is not difficult to see how chipping away at that right ends up implying that such people should not have the right to make other choices for themselves as well.

Angry Birds logoBy claiming that citizens have a right to access to paper books but not ereaders, novels but not movies, craft books but not pinterest, or even To Kill A Mockingbird but not Angry Birds, what the majority middle class culture is doing is denying both the art found in new, modern mediums and rejecting the long held belief that equalizing access to culture is a democratic necessity.  Budget decisions must always be made, of course, but public libraries have always struggled to balance the popular, archival, and informational needs and wants of their communities.  The difference now is that it is becoming increasingly unpopular to support the idea of the library as a place to go to obtain access to popular culture.

It is undeniably true that the internet is shaking public libraries up quite a bit, but we often miscast this as being the only trend rather than simply being the most visible symptom of a larger one.  It doesn’t help, after all, that for nearly half a century it was logistically, economically, and politically impossible for public libraries to provide access to mainstream culture in the form of television, thus habituating entire generations to the idea that libraries are about books and not stories and news.  Neither is it useful that so few people understand the historical parallels between the subscription lending libraries of old and their modern day Netflix and Hulu accounts.  Or even, really, their ability to purchase access to the internet.

If the rise of the internet, the increased use of google and wikipedia, and even shrinking government budgets were libraries’ only concerns they would still be in much better shape than they are now.  If changing technology were our only problem we would simply be reinventing ourselves to fit the new mediums and types of information storage.  Instead, we are constantly fighting for our right to exist, and usually losing the battle because even we often fail to realize that our main enemy is not technology but the idea that access to culture is a luxury and not a right.  In order to win this war we need to not only fight for ourselves, but for all the rights of the people we serve.  We need to highlight not only our job search workshops, but also our classes on Facebook and Tumblr.  We need to argue that access to technology is important not just in order to help people improve their short-term, personal economics – but to fulfill the original purpose of public libraries: to improve and strengthen democracy by encouraging participation in culture via providing more equal access to of Trinity College Library

It is tempting to focus on the resume classes and pretend that we also aren’t about people playing games in the internet.  After all, the latter sounds like a waste of taxpayer dollars – the kiss of death for any government service nowadays.  But pretending that leisure time is not also what we are about will mean losing the war in the long term.  It isn’t just that it will be harder to pull voter’s heartstrings when the economy picks up (assuming it ever will), the bigger flaw in this plan is we are accepting the argument that less wealthy do not deserve leisure or culture.  From there, as Russ has made clear, it is just a short step away to arguing that their voices are not worthy of being heard.  And what is a public library without the idea that citizens have a right to both read and write?

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