Tag Archives: genre fiction

#Weneeddiversebooks and dangers of genre

Last week the Weneeddiversebooks campaign ran on Twitter, Tumblr and other social media outlets, it was inspiring to read and see all the different voices. For my own small part, I read more diverse books and tried to be more conscious of what I was reading. As a white, privileged youth librarian, its important for me to listen and do all I can to promote authentic voices so that new readers can see themselves in the books that they’re reading. A company that is doing an amazing job of promoting diversity and listening to all the voices is Lee and Low Books who on their blog and other social media highlight other publishers and the discussion around the need for diverse books. One of the interesting side effects of this campaign was that it drew me to a number of thoughtful movies on Netflix that look into how key representation is and I would recommend them. To begin with, a movie about a singing group from Australia called The Sapphires, this movie is a wonderful mix of gorgeous music, the pain of racism and the Vietnam war. A shame of how its been promoted is that Chris O’Dowd, who is the manager in some cover art is highlighted when he’s very much a co-star to the four women.

Then the other two that I want to highlight are documentaries that deal with who is presenting the voice of a marginalized people. Sholem Aleichem: Laughter in the Darkness about the Yiddish author who’s stories inspired Fiddler on the Roof and helped the diaspora of Jews from Eastern Europe see themselves within literature. The documentary is wonderful in its use of archival photographs and footage along with actors reading Sholem Aleichem’s works in character. Watching it happened to coincide with a copy of¬†The Golem and the Jinni finally becoming available at the library and the documentary gave me a greater understanding of the background for the Golem’s world.

Lastly I watched Reel Injun, a film about the harm caused by movie portrayals of Native Americans in film. The director Neil Diamond travels across the United States connecting with places and people to understand what was behind the choices made about Native Americans in film and what’s being done to change the ideas. It’s a clever use of the road trip format to go through history and enlightening.

At the moment all of these movies are available on Netflix Streaming along with other outlets.

Recently a matter of stereotyping in terms of books especially Young Adult novels featuring women happened with my father and I wanted to share it as it shows how books can be lost. When I was at ALA Midwinter, I picked up a copy of Expiration Day at the Tor publishing booth, because I had seen it mentioned on their website. I didn’t read it until I was on a plane and then I blew through it, amazed and fascinated. My review is here.

When I finished it, I knew that I had to recommend it to my father who has been reading science-fiction since he was a boy and this was one of the most thoughtful books about robots and artificial intelligence that I’d encountered in a while. Science fiction is a genre I enjoy but I tend more towards fantasy, but this book completely pulled me with the characters and set up. My parents in the last week had been getting ready for a trip and that means lots of clearing up, so my father has been looking over books and magazines. He saw Expiration Day, skimmed the back and decided it wasn’t for him and I got annoyed, because the cover with the back of a young woman’s head and the description which reads like a different book, he wasn’t convinced. I told him to not judge it on how it looks, gave him a synopsis of the story and then a few days later, I found him sitting and engrossed in Expiration Day. I was glad that I was able to change his mind, but it worries me how many people who consider themselves science fiction readers will pass over a book that has a girl or a YA feel to it.

I don’t know what the best answer is to this, because the strange aspect is this book was written by a man and its one I’d recommend to teenagers. I thought it did a masterful job covering the complications of growing up, but it doesn’t fit perfectly into either box. So going by the norms of science fiction writing culture, it should do better than a woman writing about robots yet because it’s portrayed as more YA, it won’t be. The best answer I have for now is to promote¬†Expiration Day and link to The Book Smugglers’ review of it and keep pushing against the dangers of judging too much by genre. Genre to me is a place to begin, but shouldn’t be the first and last way of choosing to read a book. I know what I prefer in a book and of late I find it more in YA, fantasy and romance, but I don’t want to miss any book since it doesn’t stay in one of those boxes.

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ALA Midwinter-Seeing where I fit in

January 24th to 28th was ALA Midwinter and held in Philadelphia, which meant I was able to go and explore more of how I fit into the huge organization that is ALA. Due to the kindness of geography, I’ve now attended both an Annual and Midwinter conference and they’ve helped me to understand better where I fit into the diverse world of librarians. At this conference, I participated in a few events that to me summed up this issue of understanding what I want to make of ALA. Also I want to talk about Philadelphia, which is the city of my heart.

To begin with, I grew up outside Philadelphia in Swarthmore, Philly has always been the city of my life. After I graduated college, I interned for a year at a museum on Penn’s Landing and spent months taking the train to Market East and then walking out to the river. I’ve stood on Market street and froze while the Mummers marched by and worried about missing the last train home after being out on South Street. For this visit, I was staying with my brother in New Jersey and so took one of the commuter lines back and forth, that meant I did miss out on some social aspects of the conference, but did see my family. Also the only reasons I’ve had for going to the Convention Center were mainly to see the Philadelphia Flower Show. To see all of the ALA signage and publishers that I’d last seen in Chicago in my own city was strange and wonderful, it helped me feel more like ALA was more a part of my life.

Now to begin with the events that made this conference click for me. The first was that I went in to see the opening of the exhibit hall which I had missed in Chicago due to attending an alumni reception for the University of Michigan School of Information. This year, I was there when the doors were opened and it was a great beginning to my conference as I had a few wonderful moments of different worlds crossing. First I found the booth for YALSA where I would volunteer on Saturday morning and will speak about next.

Then I came upon the Harry Potter Alliance, a wonderful organization that channels the energy of fandom into social action. I knew of them because a dear friend who works in politics has been involved with them for a long time and it turns out the people there knew of her. This was their first time at an ALA conference and it seemed a highly successful one considering that the wizard activist ribbons they were handing out were highly popular. In the same aisle, I spotted SFWA or the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, who were also first time exhibitors, as a reader of many SFF blogs and writers, I’m aware of their work. It was nice to see them connecting with librarians though I was surprised that they hadn’t exhibited before. I went home with books in my wonderful conference bag and a sense that the conference was reaching out in interesting ways to fandom. There was also a quintet of Mummers strutting around the exhibit hall which made me grin like mad. Below is not the best picture but captures their energy and the feel of the opening.

Mummers' performers

Mummers at Midwinter

Saturday morning after a cold wait at the PATCO station, I arrived at the opening of the exhibit hall to volunteer for two hours at the YALSA booth. This was probably one of the best choices I’ve ever made connected to ALA. I was able to see the traffic going by, talk to anyone who was curious about YALSA; long-time members, students, and see how much of a community exists. 9 to 10 was quiet as many people were at meetings, but at 10, I was joined by another volunteer and by the time I left at 11, there was a crowd of librarians and friends at the booth. It was great to see friends meeting up and colleagues discussing the swiftly changing world of young adult librarianship. I’m going to work to become more involved in YALSA, because they’re a huge part of where the world of libraries are going.

After lunch with a relative, I headed to the Best Fiction for Young Adults teen session, which was amazing. The teen session is where local teens from a school or library come and talk to librarians about their thoughts on the long list of possible books for inclusion into the Best Fiction for Young Adults’ list. I learned what books the kids were reading and clearly recommending to each other because many books were talked about by multiple books. Those works brought about interesting moments as it was obvious which ones were loved, which ones kids’ thoughts depended on their own preferences. There were few that were truly hated, most of the time, a book didn’t work for someone, which was informative as if there was time, they explained why. It was a great reminder of how aware many kids are of what they like and don’t like and what’s good writing. I didn’t stay for the entire time, but most of it as I wanted to talk to the Joblist, then home for a Robert Burns’ supper.

The next major event that felt to me as if it had snuck in from a different sort of convention was waiting in line to get a copy of Fangirl signed by Rainbow Rowell. I wasn’t even aware of this signing until Friday, but due to having a friend who follows her on Twitter, I was one of the early ones in line. Macmillian press did a great job organizing the signing, everyone got a piece of paper that assured them a signed copy. In theory that meant we could have left and come back but most of us chose to lean against the back wall and hang out. There’s a vibe that you get when everyone’s waiting for a chance to meet someone who’s books matter to them, a friendly camaraderie that made the time go quickly. Most of us were reading or talking with friends and all of us were hauling about bags loaded down with books, because we were librarians. Then Rainbow Rowell was a joy and her entire backlist and new book are high on my to-read pile.

The final event I attended was the Morris’ awards and Nonfiction awards presentation that was done after the announcement of the winners of the Youth Media Awards. Since the announcements started at 8 am, I followed them on my Twitter, which was such fun. All the librarians, publishers, authors, bloggers and various book news’ outlets were sharing the winners in different ways. I was able to see some of the same energy when I got to the convention center as the noise spilled out of the various rooms where the announcements were going on.

Later, the winners of the Morris awards for the Debut fiction and Nonfiction award for young adults spoke in a different space and were available for signing. Two of the speeches left a great impression on me and made me even more conscious of the kind of librarian that I wish to be. Carrie Mesrobian, the author of Sex and Violence, spoke about how growing up she was a library rat. As a child, she was involved in many activities and then as a teen would do her own research but rarely spoke to librarians. Now she sees how those librarians made sure the books she wanted were there and that she wished more activities had been available. It was a powerful reminder of how sometimes a library can do a huge amount by just being there. The other speech that hit home was by Elizabeth Ross author of Belle Epoque, she spoke about how in her family, her sister was seen as the bookish one and that her brother didn’t read a great deal. When she decided that she wanted to write a book, she had to go against these expectations that she had internalized of herself as not a reader. Its so easy to implant these ideas when adults talk to kids and air their own perceptions instead of leaving kids space to define themselves. As a librarian and an educator, I think one of the key jobs I have is to provide resources for kids to explore, to listen and especially to let them tell me who they are.

It took me some time to put these thoughts together because ALA and its conferences have many layers and as a newer librarian, I’m still working out how I fit inside the organization. I feel like in Philadelphia, I was able to find my feet and get a better idea of how as a youth librarian, I can be part of the future of libraries. To end, here’s a picture of the Delaware River that I saw as I headed back to New Jersey and my regular life.

Philadelphia Waterfront

Philadelphia Waterfront

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Why would you read that?-preference vs quality

The area I’m living in at the moment has an older and mainly retired population, younger families are around but they’re not the majority. As my current social life connects to my parents who are retired and active in this small town, I’ve been having conversations that I haven’t expected. Most of the media that I consume is young adult, fantasy or variation or combination of these two, among my friends we might not all like the same works but share a common vocabulary. So its surprising for me to be talking about books I recently read and have someone say, “Why would you read that?” in terms of fantasy, because the characters aren’t human or real enough. My explanation is that I will read anything if I find the characters compelling. This has led to some good discussions in terms of what attracts someone to want to read a book.

It seems like every few months, an article will appear about why adults read YA or how guilty pleasure books can be okay, which starts the conversation up again. A lot of it seems stuck on the idea of what has value and who gets to decide the value for various works. I think this lies at the heart of it and is an important aspect of consuming books to discuss. There are books that jump out from others in terms of their quality across the genres but due to there being all these genres, what matters most is personal preference. In another conversation I have, we talked about the idea of genres and its key to remember that the genres as divined by a literature professor won’t be the same as those picked by a publishing executive and that genres shift over time. As a librarian, part of my job is to find how best to get these books to those who will like them and people who might not think of trying them. In this way genres can be unhelpful when someone says, “Oh, I don’t read fantasy or science fiction or young adult.” The next step is to talk to them for me is to find out what makes them not want to read those books. I find the idea isn’t to convince them to try something, that comes later. Its best to begin by understanding was there a book they didn’t like, why didn’t they like it and was there another they did like. Our personal preferences are built from our experiences and when looking into unfamiliar genre, a difficult but enlightening step is to try. If you’re thinking about wanting something new to read outside your comfort zone, ask someone who prefers a genre you normally don’t read for advice to where to begin. That’s how I got started reading Romance, I read two great book blogs, and and one day I won a book and discovered I actually quite enjoyed Historical Romance.

All these thoughts have been going through my head as I move back and forth from a world where book clubs tend to read the bestsellers, a children’s section of the library and my online world that focuses on fantasy and young adult literature. As a librarian, I feel part of what I do is to help patrons find books they’ll enjoy and a few that will surprise them.

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Inspiration and Mirrors: the stories I’m connecting to

The reason I call myself a librarian and a storyteller all turns back on stories; the stories that I create, the stories that help me understand myself and the stories that inspire me. At the moment, my own story is in a place of transition as I look to where my next job will be and get fully into my career as a librarian.

This is a good opportunity to talk about two inspirations that are the background to my job search. One of them is an amazing CD called Wicked Girls by the fantastic author Seanan McGuire. She is currently nominated for a number of Hugo Awards but one of them is for a song that I keep coming back called Wicked Girls, the link is to the lyrics. This song is about what happens after to many of the girls of fantasy and how quite often, their stories move on without them and the choices they make to take control of their lives. Something I am constantly working on is how to put myself out there in as many ways as possible, so there is no doubt of what I wish and what I can do. McGuire’s words remind me that sometimes that means playing within what’s accepted and other times pushing to see what will bend. In the midst of my job search, I feel quite aware of how I can only do so much in terms of how I’m perceived and what happens. This song and the others on the album remind me to hold true to myself and what I know to insure that the story I tell of who I am is honest. It also leads well into the next idea I want to talk about, which is how by looking deeper into works that change us, we can learn.

Last summer, the movie X-Men: First Class came out and I was utterly caught and inspired by it especially by the character of Charles Xavier. One reason is that James MacAvoy is an actor that I love and have since he was Leto II in Children of Dune, but that’s just a single element. The other reasons are rather more complex and reflect a lot of how I love to interact with works that I like and dislike, all the variations that fandom helps me access and that I wish to bring to students. Charles Xavier is a telepath and a mutant; a man who’s constantly searching for others like him to help them know that they’re not alone and find a way for mutants to be safe. He’s someone that I see a lot of myself in as I grew up in a household concerned about making certain that everyone was happy and healthy. My father was a psychiatrist and my mother an anthropologist, which meant that the way I learned to approach a problematic situation was to ask: What’s going on in this person’s life? What have I done to cause this reaction? What can I change and what can’t be changed? I spent my time learning to find the balance between my perceptions of a situation, how others see it and the repercussions of choices that I make. In Charles, I see all of these questions taken to a different place as he can hear thoughts and so will know many of the thoughts going on behind actions, but as he has to hide his ability can’t react fully to him. At the moment, a great many of the stories I write about him are looking into how did that change his experience of growing up and how did he learn to find the balance he needed to be sane and succeed. Writing his journey is another avenue for me to reflect on how I see myself and the world as well as connecting to a greater community of fans of the X-Men. This is the great power of fiction and creation for me is how it provides mirrors of character and numerous opportunities to create and consider what does it mean to like something.

Charles provides as well an inspiration for me as he creates a place to welcome those who feel unwelcome and off in the world. I grew up as a nerd and books and my creativity gave me a place to be feel safe and think beyond what I knew. As a librarian and an educator, it is part of my role to give young people a place that they will be safe to be whoever they are. I hope in time to be able to use my own experiences as a writer and a participator within fandom as well as a student of literature to give students new ways to approach the stories around them.

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Where I fit as a librarian and reader: not either/or but and

My last few weeks have been incredibly busy as I had three in-person interviews at three quite different independent schools. I’m not going to go into detail about these interviews but they did get me thinking about perceptions of libraries, librarians and books. Then last night I was reading an article in The New Yorker about guilty pleasure reading, which is a phrase I dislike and I wanted to write about the views of books and technology.

Two of the schools I spoke to have iPad programs and I ended up dealing with many questions that were variations on: we have it all on the ipad, what can you do? These questions weren’t too surprising considering the language that the media and the educational world use in terms of these new technology tools, that its all right there at your fingertips and your students can do it all. This seems rather short-sighted because another discussion that swirls around technology is how there’s so much information, it’s hard to know how to navigate it. I found that my best answer was by talking about two quite different aspects-the library has a third place and community gathering point and how I as a librarian can help navigate the resources available. This seemed to make sense and it was fascinating to see the different ideas that being in the library brought about in discussions, I could almost guess the people who grew up spending their time in libraries and those who didn’t. Then in terms of technology, when I spoke of how my job as librarian was to gather and curate the resources to get them prepared and easy so that the focus in classes could be on education, that made sense.

I found these conversations amazing as I was able to get a sense of how the sense of what is a library is in such flux, this was something that came up, again and again in the course of my degree. We were constantly debating and discussing what is a library, sometimes in comparison-what is a library in comparison to an archive or online or in a school? I found the chance to bring see how those thoughts played out in the arena of schools a reminder that I have found the right career for myself.

Now the other aspect I was thinking about was who I am as a genre reader. One of the quickest ways to make me lose my temper is to call any book trash since it adds an element of shame to reading, which is awful. Last night at work, I was reading an article in The New Yorker called “In Praise of Guilty Reading Pleasures” by Arthur Krystal. I would link it but its behind the paywall but if you have access I recommend reading it because the author didn’t do a good job arguing for genre books in particular mysteries and thrillers.

What got in the author’s way from the start is the idea that any book is a guilty pleasure, this brings shame and I shouldn’t be reading it into the equation and is insulting. My view has always been if a book brings you pleasure, its worthwhile. If someone wishes to criticize a book there are many other ways to speak of them that don’t make the reader feel as if they’re not good enough such as talking about the quality of the writing, the characters, the plot, the world-building, the cover or even the editing. All of these elements exist in every type of book and create a level playing field. The author was trying to argue that these genre books can be well-written and are good in their terseness and effectiveness and talked about the fascinating history of the novel, which hasn’t always been the darling of the literary establishment. It was at the end of the article that this all fell apart. I’m going to quote the first and last lines of the final paragraph that I tweeted last night to show what I mean about the author destroying his own point.

Apparently we’re still judged by the books we read, and perhaps we should be.

And, if we feel a little guilty for getting so swept up, there’s always “Death in Venice” to read as penance.

I just don’t get this attitude and its so prevalent that people enjoy that on their e-readers, no one knows what they’re reading. If we’re to continue nurturing readers, we need to make it clear that reading is wonderful and we all have different tastes. I think my biggest issue with this article is how it brings in strong and harmful religious ideas about penance and almost a diet analogy in read your veggie books, do your penance instead of enjoy what you like.

To end on a happier note, today on Tor.com I read an article about genre fiction that completely got it about how genre can be fun and deep and complex called Why Genre is Synonymous with Pop. I also highly recommend Tor’s Genre in the Mainstream series as it looks at why some books are literary and some genre and how the lines blur far more often than we expect. Usually what puts a book on one side or the other is the author or the publishing house and how they’re considered. That’s another longer discussion about how publishers decide where a book fits and best left for another time.

In the end, I see myself as a librarian as someone who connects resources and helps makes sense of all that’s out there. We don’t have to do either e-books or print, its a matter of and. The library is a place to meet as a community and talk about what we love. Just as books aren’t a matter of either literary and good for you or a guilty pleasure, a book that you get lost in is a worthwhile book.

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