Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Librarian's Take on 13 Reasons Why: Part 1, a Defense of the Book

Since the release of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why I have seen many articles from psychologists, parents, and teachers talking about all the ways in which the show is irresponsible and dangerous.  I don't necessarily disagree with their points, but as a YA librarian who works with 900 teens each day, I feel like I might have some other things to discuss about the show and the book.

I read 13 Reasons Why when it came out ten years ago.  (Aside:  The kids at my school are amazed to learn there has been a book around all this time before it was a series).  I read fast and a few days to weeks later can only tell you that I liked or disliked a book and a couple of specific memories.  I felt "meh" about 13 Reasons.  I didn't think the writing was spectacular and Hannah felt pretty whiny to me about things that most of us have gone through.  Nothing struck me as inappropriate for middle school readers although I am admittedly very liberal with what I will put on my shelves.  Since my memory of specifics is not great, after watching the series I felt that I needed to go back through the book to be able to do a real comparison.  So I just completed a speedy second reading of the book.  I felt exactly the same as I remember from my first reading.

However, as a librarian I have other considerations for what makes a book that I like.  The first kind of book I like is one that I actually enjoyed reading.  The second kind of book I like is one that I might not have personally enjoyed but that I know will be popular with my students.  I like those books because it's hard enough to encourage teens to read so anything they will pick up is something I like.  13 Reasons Why is one of those books.  I can "sell" it to any teen, every single time I booktalk it.  It has an amazing hook that pulls them in.  What's more, any librarian can tell you that one way to know a book is popular is that it gets stolen a lot.  I've had to buy a lot of replacement copies of 13 Reasons over the years.

During the past week I binged the series.  I will talk more about that in a later post, but first I want to address a worry of mine as a librarian.  This show is blowing up, fast!  Seeing all the concerns from so many sources, and having 25 years experience in school libraries, I feel sure that someone is going to question the appropriateness of the book for middle schoolers sooner rather than later.  There are plenty of reviews to back up its inclusion in my collection not to mention the fact that it has been on my shelves for a decade, but here's another point:  there's a world of difference between reading and immersing yourself in a visual representation of that world.  And our kids are so much more responsive to video than text so they are going to have a more intense reaction to the series than to anything they read.  They are two totally different mediums and if you are someone who has watched the series, DO NOT judge the book by that series.  

First of all, the book is a quick read of only about 250 pages.  Even slow, but dedicated, readers will be able to finish that in a few hours.  The show is 13 loooonnnnng hours (foreshadowing of my feelings about the series) so that's a lot of time to be immersed in this world.  

Secondly, the series ramps up the drama all around.  In the book we basically only hear from Hannah and Clay.  We hear what Hannah tells us herself and what Clay remembers of the situations she describes.  In the show we delve into the thoughts, lives, and repercussions for all of the people on the tapes.  We see the teens' lives falling apart as they feel the guilt for what they did to Hannah (which is actually one of the recurring complaints people have about the series).  We are also drawn deep into Hannah's parents' grief which is devastating, especially as an adult viewer.  It's not that the book is a light-hearted romp, but it is easier to separate yourself from the events which makes it less troublesome.  

Thirdly, the word "fuck" does not appear in the book at all but it is all over the place in the series.  I don't object to that word myself but it is a huge problem for people when it comes to challenging books.  In this case, I think that is a fair indicator of the difference in mature content between the book and the series.  The series also shows most of the kids drinking and several of them selling and buying pot.  Drinking is mentioned in the party scenes in the book but pot never comes up.

Next, when it comes to edgy content in a book, one thing I look at is the page number on which the swearing or mature subject matter occurs.  A book I read recently had the phrase "Shit-faced rat fucker" on page 6.  See, that's a problem because every reader is going to make it to page 6.   But if a sweaty make out scene doesn't happen until 2/3 of the way into the book, that's much less of a problem because only my good readers are going to get that far anyway.  And they are more likely to be mature enough to deal with that content in the first place.  But watching TV does not require tenacity or maturity so it's likely that everyone who starts the series will have no trouble making it to the scenes with (extremely) mature content. 

In 13 Reasons, Hannah makes the point that everything snowballs to her decision to kill herself so even the things that see somewhat trivial are part of the overall package.  But I would say that the first pretty edgy scene is with Marcus in the diner which is page 141 - nearly exactly halfway through the book.  Before that the offenses Hannah details are rumors, being slapped, and being added to the hot freshman girls list.  And even with Marcus, after he feels her up, Hannah stands up to him so she still has some power.  So the book passes my "not too early in the book" test of mature content.

Finally, there are many differences between the book and the series but one of the most significant to me is the method of suicide.  The series shows Hannah cutting her veins open in a graphic scene but in the book she decides to take pills, a much less graphic ending to her life.  I actually have my reasons for why I might prefer the way it is depicted on Netflix, but that's a topic for another post.  Furthermore, not only is her suicide method less gory in the book, it is not described at all other than in her train of thought about how she will kill herself.  So the voyeuristic part of the suicide is cut out entirely.

Coming up:  How the series differs from the book, what I thought about the series, and what my students have to say about the show

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A List of Cages by Robin Roe

After Julian's loving parents died he was taken into a foster home with Adam and his mother for a few moths.  The two boys became close until a distant uncle showed up and took custody of Julian.  Now that Julian is a freshman in high school he finds that Adam has been tasked with making sure Julian makes it to his appointments with the school counselor.  Julian is withdrawn, awkward, misses school quite often, and wears clothes that are too small.  Adam is popular and self-assured and soon pulls Julian into his group of friends.  The more he gets reacquainted with Julian, the more Adam can tell there is something weird happening with uncle Russell.  Even though he remembers his how his parents cared for him, Julian has accepted the punishments he gets from Russell but as he spends more time with Adam and his new friends, he begins to see that things might be bad there.

This is an intense story about a victim of abuse and Julian's reaction to what is happening rings true to me.  I've been a school librarian for 24 years and have seen thousands of kids.  The ones from really crappy homes are always protective of their parents and internalize the problems, blaming themselves.  It is a compelling read and I know it will be flying off my shelves but I would have some qualms about putting it on a recommended list for younger teens.  The abuse scenes grow as the book goes along and the abuse is disturbing (more than "just" getting hit with the switch at the beginning) and protracted.  It will definitely be an issue for sensitive readers although it is comforting to know that Julian has a hero in Adam.  The ending scene at the party felt more like thriller/suspense work which didn't seem to fit with the rest of the story.

A Psalm for Lost Girls by Katie Bayerl

Callie's older sister is a saint.  And not one of those people who just do nice things and people say that about them, Tess is actually being considered for sainthood by the Catholic church because she has performed miracles.   While she was alive she heard voices that helped people coming to Tess for answers so people were already praying to Tess for help even before she died of a rare heart condition.  Now that she is gone the pressure to find a miracle she has performed is even greater.  Callie knew her sister best of all and she knows that Tess didn't think of herself as a saint so Callie is determined to prove she wasn't.  Before she died a young girl was kidnapped and everyone looked to Tess for clues to finding the girl.  Now Ana has been found at one of the many shrines set up to Tess and the whole city is whispering "miracle".  But Ana isn't talking at all and the person who took her is still watching.

This is a dense story packed with so many layers that it's difficult to unpack.  There is:  Callie's grief and her reaction to that; her mom's determination to prove Tess is a saint; Callie's relationship with Tess' boyfriend (who was a secret from the rest of the world); Ana's recovery; the process of sainthood; what faith means; the mystery of who took Ana  and where he still is; about ten more things as well!  I liked most of it but I got frustrated with Callie's self-destructive behavior even as it was clear why she was acting that way. 

In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives by Kenneth C. Davis

Listening to "Hamilton" is very nearly the only thing I've done for the past four months.  I've also read all sorts of things about the founding fathers included in the play and I keep discovering new lyrics that resonate each time I listen to the music.  One of the most recent lines that caught my attention is Jefferson's "Looking at the rolling fields I can't believe that we are free."  The irony is great considering how appreciative he is to be free of Britain but totally missing the point of his own role as a slave owner.  That's pretty much the point of this whole book.  These men who truly did amazing things that still hold up our society today, also did some horrible things and often didn't see that contradiction.  Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson are all included in the book and all have complicated stories relating to slavery.  (On a "Hamilton" side note, Philip Schuyler is listed at the beginning which prompted me to find out that Eliza brought some slaves to her marriage to Alexander so he also shares in this complicated story between abolitionist and slave-owner.)

I learned a lot from this book and it wasn't stuff that made me happy.  It's stuff that we'd prefer to ignore in order to keep our heroes of history pure.  However, I don't feel like learning that these men we not all perfect diminishes their impact on history.  People are not all good nor all bad.  All of us do things that can and will be judged as good or bad by others around us and by history.  It is easy to say that slavery was accepted at that time so these men did not do anything wrong and that we shouldn't apply today's standards to the 18th and 19th century.  I can agree with that argument to an extent, but Davis' intricate research makes it clear that all of these men had some doubts themselves about the morality of owning others.  But those doubts didn't make Washington go any easier on Ona Judge who escaped and whom he tried to recapture for years.  So it's that contrast between beliefs and actions that makes the stories of our forefathers compelling.  We just have to accept the entire man:  owning slaves does not mean that the great work they did in establishing our country is not noteworthy nor does the amazing work they did mean we can overlook the fact that they were okay with owning other people.  (A surprise to me about Jackson, given that he is now embraced by all sorts of alt-right groups, was to find out that he was one of the kindest to his slaves.)

My criticism of the book is that I felt its premise was to show us that the enslaved people were as deserving of having their history written about as the presidents who owned them, that they also had full lives outside of being enslaved.  I agree with that premise.  However, because of the lack of records that were kept for slaves, their stories felt thin and the chapters still seemed to be mostly about the presidents and their lives.  Obviously, this is making some of the point in and of itself, but maybe the book should've been reframed somehow because of this.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Dog, Ray by Linda Coggin

After she dies in a collision with a horse, Daisy is reincarnated as a dog.  Her confusion about returning to Earth leads to her having all the memories of her life as a human and she sets about trying to reunite with her parents.  While searching she ends up bonding with homeless boy Pip who is on a search for his father and some stability in his own life.  

A quick description but a sweet book.  As someone who spends probably too much time imagining what my animals are thinking and feeling, it feels like Coggin nails Daisy's transition from girl to dog.  At first she is completely caught up in her previous life but bit by bit she thinks and acts like a dog.  The story could easily swerve into something maudlin or manipulatively emotional but it stays just touching and happy enough without crossing that line.

Frazzled: Everyday Disasters and Impending Doom by Booki Vivat

Abbie is about to start middle school and, as she points out, everything that is "middle" is awful.  She ought to know because she is a middle child.  Middle school starts out just as terribly as she imagines.  She doesn't share lunch with her two friends, she didn't pick an elective and is stuck in study hall, the cafeteria food is just as disgusting as it was in elementary school, and she doesn't have a "thing" like everyone else seems to have. In a burst of inspiration, she arranges a food trading network where other students can get the things they want and everyone is happy with their lunches.  Unfortunately, the school doesn't appreciate Abbie's creativity and it looks like her thing might be getting into trouble.

In the tradition of Wimpy Kid books, this story is full of illustrations.  The entire story felt a little over the top for me in terms of Abbie's reactions to things and the events but it's obviously aimed at a much younger audience than me.  Despite my skepticism, I was caught up enough in the story that I had to stop to think about why it was a problem for the kids to be trading lunch items which seemed like a genius idea to me.  I know Frazzled will have a big audience at my school even though it didn't do much for me and I always appreciate any book that will make my students want to read.  The one thing I know for sure is that I wish I had a superhero-esque name such as Booki Vivat rather than my boring, normal moniker.  I am already imagining my superhero costume as Booky Vibrant the next time it is superhero day at school.

Messenger by Carol Lynch Williams

On her 15th birthday Evie's aunt whisks her away early in the morning to find out what her gift is. The Messenger women all have a special gift.  Evie's beloved Aunt Odie has a way with food and has made a lot of money selling mixes that taste like something homemade.  When Odie and Evie consult with the man who is supposed to be able to see Evie's gift, he ends their session abruptly and doesn't give any further information.  When Odie questions him, he clearly reveals something to her but she doesn't share this information with Evie and she doesn't think much more of it after her surprise party that night.  But despite the distraction of the cute boy across the street, Evie finds she can't get away from the Messenger legacy when she finally discovers what sets her apart from her peers.

The writing - oh, the writing.  It's obviously meant to be artsy but I prefer my books to have details and descriptions.  It's also annoying when people know some secret but refuse to disclose it to the  person most affected by that information.  It was clear what Evie's gift was to everyone but her so why not tell her?  And when she finally confronts Odie and they go back to see the dude who was supposed to tell her in the first place, he just says what she already knows so what's supposed to be the point of that?  Just blech all around including the somewhat creepy insta-love interest who apparently fell in deep love with someone at the age of 12.  I loved The Chosen One so much but I am ready to give up on Carol Lynch Williams.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Tell Me Something Real by Calla Devlin

It is 1976 and Vanessa's mother is traveling to Mexico on a regular basis to receive treatment for her leukemia.  Despite their promise, these treatments (which are not approved for use in the United States) are not helping and soon Vanessa's mom breaks the news that she is terminal.  Vanessa and her two sisters are struggling with the knowledge that everything they do is probably the last time with their mother.  Vanessa finds some comfort in her piano playing even though she can't consider the possibility of attending a conservatory what with all the turmoil that already exists in the family.  She is also finding solace from Caleb, another cancer patient who comes to stay with their family so that he and his mother won't have to travel so far to get to the clinic in Mexico.  But it turns out that sometimes there are things worse than cancer.

The more I reflect on this book the more I find myself annoyed with it even though I gave it three stars.  I see many other reviews mentioning the exquisite writing style but to me the writing was in the style of other books I've read recently and haven't liked.  It seemed somewhat hazy and detached - almost purposely low key as if to make a point about contrasting the writing style with the outrageous events that are happening in the plot.  We Were Liars is an example of another book written this way.  It feels pretentious and I don't like it.

About 2/3 of the way into the book Vanessa goes to visit her music teacher.  Her teacher has pictures of her two grown sons, Jackson and Philip.  Then there is this passage:  

"She taps Jackson.  'He was drafted the first year of the war.  He died after a few weeks in Vietnam.'
That would have been in 1970.  He's been dead for six years, since before I met Mrs. Albright."

I stopped reading there to ponder that and to try to think about what I knew about the Vietnam War.  I was pretty sure it started before 1970 so I went to a few websites to double check myself.  Sure enough, the war started many years before 1970.  Then I went back and reread the passage about ten times thinking that I must've somehow misinterpreted it.  Surely the author didn't say that the war started in 1970, right?  I couldn't come up with a different way to look at that.  Then I ran it by my husband and a close friend and neither of them could think of a different way to interpret that.  So I have a real problem with that and, as you can obviously see, it completely drew me out of the story.

I wonder sometimes if people love books or movies simply because they didn't see the twist coming.  Is it the M. Night Shyamalan effect?  I DID see the twist coming and even guessed what it was so I can't separate that out from my overall impression, but I am speculating that some of the rave reviews are based on the surprise readers had about that revelation.   In regards to that twist, more should've been explained about Dad's need to protect the kids.  The basis for his fear and the danger they faced was not explicit and I think it would be unclear to some readers.

Another issue was brought to my attention by another reviewer on Goodreads.  She wrote about the blurb on the back that makes a big point about how the neighbors call the sisters brats and despise them.  However, this is not or barely mentioned in the book.  It seems to me that everyone is pretty nice to them.  Certainly people at school are supportive.  Is this from an earlier edition of the book or is it just a way to try to hook readers? 

Adrienne's character felt overly dramatic and poser-ish although I have certainly known people exactly like her.  The swearing is an issue for me in terms of selling the book to readers because it shows up very early.  On page six she says "shit-faced rat fucker" in one of the few references to why people don't like them.  That doesn't mean anything when it comes to having the book in my library collection, but having the f word so early in the book makes it difficult to put it on any sort of list that could be considered "required" in any way.  

Are there more issues?  Probably but this is enough for now.  Except that I will say this has a very bad cover as well.  That is not the author's responsibility but she ought to consider saying something to the publisher for any future editions.  I'm not getting any of the references on there and even if it all tied into the story somehow, it will not sell to teens at all.

Snow White: A Graphic Novel by Matt Phelan

This retelling of Snow White is set in New York City in 1928. Snow is the daughter of a successful Wall Street tycoon who becomes enthralled by the Queen of the Follies - the evil stepmother.  Snow's father dies suddenly and her stepmother receives a message from the stock ticker that Snow is more beautiful.  When Snow escapes from the hunter sent to kill her, she is taken in and protected by seven street urchins until she is brought down by the poisoned apple.

While the setting is intriguing and Phelan does a good job using the trappings of that time period to tell the parts of the original story, I was not impressed overall.  I think most teens will be out of touch with the era - the stock ticker, the Follies, Hoovervilles, and more.  Also, Phelan's pictures just don't grab me in any of his books, not just this one.  Not my cup of tea/bathtub full of gin.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Gemini by Sonya Mukherjee

Clara and Hailey have lived in a small town all of their lives by design. Their parents picked this town because they knew the girls would be able to be accepted by the townspeople and have as normal a life as possible.  Clara and Hailey are conjoined twins, connected at their lower back with their intestines intertwined making separation extremely risky.  Now 17, the girls are a part of the community with most people not paying much attention to them but they each want separate things.  Clara is worried about attracting attention and would like to stay close to home.  Hailey is not concerned about stares and would like to travel the world, starting with attending a great art school somewhere out of their little town.  New, cute boy Max helps to shake up Clara's plans for the future even more making her consider taking a step that could change everything.  

It is obviously fascinating to imagine living life with another person attached to you all the time, especially as both girls find themselves interested in dating for the first time, but the actual storyline left me feeling mostly "Eh".  I liked the girls' solution to their mother's overprotectiveness at the end of the book, but a great deal of the time I found myself wondering when we were going to get to the meat of the story. 

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Ada has never been allowed to leave her apartment because her cruel mother is embarrassed by Ada's club foot. She uses threats against Ada's younger brother Jamie to keep her in line and when that doesn't work, she locks Ada into a small cupboard.  As World War II begins many of the children in London are shipped out of town to homes in the country where they will be safe from the daily bombing.  Jamie is scheduled to leave so Ada joins him and the two siblings arrive in a small town where they are unwillingly taken in by Susan Smith.  Although Susan says she is not a nice person, Ada finds that she has more freedom than she ever dreamed existed as she learns to ride a pony and is not subjected to daily suffering. 

A good friend talked about this book the year it was published and said it was one of her favorites for the year.  Now that I've read it, I have to agree with her assessment.  It is so wonderful to watch Ada bloom from someone who is beaten down into a girl with enough spunk to help catch spies and save her brother.  Their mother is a nasty villain who will leave readers hating her and wondering how someone could care so little for her own child.  As a small bonus - this might not be Bradley's intention, but I choose to believe that there is a same sex relationship quietly woven into the story.  So many characters were saved and saved each other!