Clothing Choices

I just read a book that made me laugh. That made me cry. That made me email fellow readers and tell them that I was glad I got a copy of the book before someone inevitably slaps a big ole medal on the cover. And I have full confidence in saying this, despite its January 11 release. (Of course, I thought this about Wintergirls, too.) If I were to say it had a flaw – and it does – because let’s face it, no book is perfect – it’s the sin of name-dropping.

Heretofore this amazingly gifted author has avoided naming the brands of clothing characters have worn. But also heretofore, this author has only ever written boy characters. Now that he has gone girl, so has some of his prose. It felt like I needed at least two hands (and that’s several fingers too many) to count the number of times the character referenced her Chuck Taylors. And I would forgive the slight of name-checking Forever 21 in re The Date Dress if there had been mention of the BFF, whose characterization was such that such things are Important, or if such choices were organic in Girl’s own character. But alas, there was not.

To me, Chuck Taylors have become the Manolo Bhlaniks or Jimmy Choos of middle class YA fiction. It became such that I would just read over the name and say…okay…she’s that girl, without ever really needing to know what a Chuck Taylor sneaker looked like. So I finally looked them up. So that’s what they are. Okay. Why do I need to know she wears these things? She, like her boyfriend, is unprecedented.

In this book’s case, I think I know what happened. The author even hinted at it. He fielded a question about the difference in writing boys vs. girls and said one main difficulty was getting the clothes right. Women in his life (spouse, editor, etc.) read the thing and their one negative comment – 16-year-old girls did not wear what he initially robed them in (flower dresses and some sort of offbeat shoe, IIRC), but they were what he remembered 16-year-old girls wearing. In 1997. So her wardrobe changed. And I, persnickety reader, am disappointed, for the character is just so “inimitable,” that the original clothing choices actually make more sense and would endear her even more to me. If that were possible.

Writers of girls: what do we do with what they wear? Is it Important? Will it date the text too much? I like it when name-dropping serves a point: satire, cultural commentary, identifier of flat characters (Gucci will always sound expensive). I hate it when it is the sole identifier of characters who are supposed to be round and when its name (or the store’s) does not signify anything some kid 20 years from now will “get.”

Is this a Gender Thing? Has anyone read a book inside a boy’s head in which he dons a Brooks Brothers for The Date Shirt when fashion is not an intrinsic part of his life? Or am I just being a crotchety old woman because I stayed up past my bedtime thinking about this book, and the clothes do not matter so much because the characters do matter to the universe and do exist beyond the oblivion of the last page?

Cast that Book Game!

I do not have a real post. With whispers of who’s directing and who may like what part, it’s become the next water cooler talk now that the book’s out and read. Since many fans are already doing this, I thought I’d cast my ballot. And dream movie. And not just based on who’s hot right now or just plain hot-looking.

The Hunger Games:

Katniss Everdeen: Hailee Steinfeld (I like her sneer. She’s also slated to hold her weight alongside Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon in the upcoming True Grit.)

Gale: Dev Patel (He has the Seam look about him, is endearing in SlumDog Millionaire, and this still has him angry.)

Peeta: Matt Lauria (Watch Friday Night Lights, the latest season. He’s an honest, humble young man with the strong body of a baker’s son. He can be my dandelion any day!)

Haymitch: Johnny Depp (I really don’t think I have to justify this. Except to say he’s better at becoming characters than Robert Downey, Jr. I just see RDJ no matter who he plays. And Randy Quaid is too old.)

Prim: Chloe Moretz (Her name has been floated in circles to play Katniss. I object!)

President Snow: Zeljiko Ivanek (First saw him in The Event, a TV show this season. He just oozes evil. )

Caesar Flickman: Anil Kapoor. (I can’t read the book without thinking of his performance as the host of India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire.)

Rue: Bailee Madison (She’s supposed to be a darker-skinned doppleganger for Prim.)

BBW: The Huh? Edition

Here are some books challenged for head-scratching reasons:

  • Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. For  one person’s belief it contained “economic fallacies” and socialism. We are in the worst economy since the Great Depression. Every news cycle there’s a story about people not getting by financially. High school economics students should have access to the book and make up their own mind.
  • The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. A parent’s complaint has led to a consideration of a permanent classroom ban because it defined a term heard way back in the 1990s with the Clinton scandal. The dictionary is the place to go to for an accurate definition. Depending on the age of the students, a simpler dictionary may not have words that promote “intellectual” rigor that parents/banners so desire for their children.
  • And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. Why does this half to be more than the pictoral representation of real penguins who once took care of an egg Three Men and a Baby style? Stop pushing your agenda and impressions on children and their books. That goes for both sides?

ETA: Oh boy, just read that some parent is challenging The Hunger Games. She called it “filth.” Yes, the fictional acts are filthy and are roundly condemned by the characters. That’s the whole point of the book. A book, by the way, in which society has degraded to barbaric totalitarianism, and while pen and paper exists, books do not.

Discussion question: Matched, as well as  The Hunger Games, lack varying forms of literacy.  What other dystopic novels feature an illiterate (to any degree) populace? What role do you think the lack of books and writing plays into the degradation of social values?

It’s fairly easy to answer, I think. People who urge schools and libraries to withhold reading material from others ought to think about the slippery slope they’re toeing.

BBW: The Surprise Banned Book

Anita Silvey likes to give the same presentation for her book Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book. She asks the audience to submit the title of what book they’ve learned the most from. I usually say Madeline. Other times, it’s The Giver.

Like Jonas, I learned the importance of love, the nature of love, the dignity and value of personhood. More importantly, I learned that adults can be massively wrong and the right thing to do is to challenge their ways and that not every ending is tied up in a happy, clear bow. It was the first book to upset me, and I love it fiercely.But I had no idea what could cause it to be banned. There was no foul language. Jonas and The Giver are clearly good and what the fauxtopia does is clearly bad. Maybe if the narrator explained how the pregnant girls got pregnant (since men are chemically neutered at the onset of puberty), then I could see it possibly having a content issue. But that story hole was not filled.

So why is it banned? The appalling topics of euthanasia, pill-popping (to suppress normal sexual urges), and apparently for being lewd. Uh, conservatives…it can’t go both ways.Or you were never a teenage boy nor lived with one nor read about human development and hormones. Some argue that Lowry didn’t go far enough. I think those people don’t give kids enough credit.

Here’s the thing if you read Lowry’s book and have half a brain, you get that readers are supposed to find these societal behaviors as appalling! Children will hear about these topics on the nightly news, read about them on the Internet, and encounter much worse in video games. But that’s all at home.

The underlying issue of this week is that people don’t want certain books talked about at school. School is a place of learning, but not of real life, apparently. How many parents (including the ones who challenge books) actually have conversations with their children about the good and the bad of the human experience? Do they have the vocabulary and structure with which to inspire independent thought and discernment about the topics?  How are children supposed to learn to think critically if they’re never given anything that demands a critique!

If the only problem with these books is that they’re talked about at school, then parents need to seriously question whether they want their children reading the books outside of any context with no adult guidance and then not come to you because they’re afraid you will punish them for reading that “bad” book instead of getting a loving conversation. Because that’s what happens. Kids will get exposed to bad stuff…don’t you want to be there, and if you can’t, a trained professional – like a teacher?

Here’s what should happen: At the beginning of the year, teachers send out the curriculum outlining the books the kids will read, what’s in them, and WHY they’re reading them. Parents will be strongly encouraged to read the books ahead of time or as a family during the unit. Parents shall be allowed to ask for a substitute book for their children only after having proven that they’ve read the book (and not just because Fox News said so) AND have personally selected a suitable alternative (to be judged by the teacher) that fits the curriculum for that unit. Too much work, you say, parent? Well, that’s your job. Who knows – you might learn something.

BBW: Book Facing a New Challenge, Part 2

Full disclosure: Jo Knowles was my writing instructor at Simmons College’s MFA program in Fall 2007.

Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles is featured on ALA’s Challenged or Banned List for 2009-2010. It’s wonderful that Jo’s poignant novel about overcoming peer sexual abuse is finally getting country-wide exposure, but depressing that it had to come about because a group of adults found its content “unsuited for discussion in coed high school classes” and not providing “intellectual challenge and rigor.”

Problems abound with this mindset:

1) If teenagers can’t communicate about issues in a safe, controlled environment, how will they grow up to interact with the opposite gender in other contexts?

2) Foul language, sex, abuse, drug use, etc. are parts of many teenagers’ realities, unfortunately. Withdrawing the opportunity to analyze the novel and the author’s choices may only push teenagers’ problems deeper underground.

3) The AP Literature and Language Composition exams give a suggested list of titles from which to choose in answering generic analysis questions. Students may select books off the list. Speak would be fabulous to write about in tandem with The Scarlett Letter (undoubtedly on the suggested lists). Lessons from a Dead Girl has character development, themes, and literary devices also ready for analysis.

4) I once had a friend say any middle schooler could write Ernest Hemingway books, presumably due to the simple sentence construction and “easy” diction. Actually, Hemingway, Knowles, and other modern writers’ styles are more approachable for the college-bound than Henry James or translated Russian authors. Seriously, Henry James writes in such a way that one sentence is an entire page long. Further, the themes, characters, and plots bear little meaning to teenagers’ realities. Wouldn’t it be an intellectual exercise to approach modern fiction with the same critical background?

Thankfully, the book is still available in the library and the school’s book club.

BBW: New Books Facing Challenges, Part 1

Last week, the book blogosphere was in a tizzy over a Missouri editorialist’s condemnation of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson due to two rape scenes. We all know (1) rape does not equal pornography. Pornography is sexual in nature; rape is a violent crime. And (2) the second scene was not a rape.  It was a fully clothed attempt at assault. Main character Melinda’s voice and the female lacrosse team awesomely prevented things from getting worse. Read the book more closely, WS.

Many people came to the book’s defense and the reasons why this book should be allowed in curricula. So I wanted to tackle something different: banning political ideologies.

This person in Missouri (WS) must have thought that his role as John Q. Public was to act in the public’s best interest. After all, he is a taxpayer and his dollars are funding the school program that includes this book in the curriculum. His children are home-schooled.  What we really have here is an adult with his own ideology and presuming that exercising his rights as a free citizen means to ban everyone from things that go against his ideology. The problem with that – unilaterally making a decision from an unqualified position  – that’s not democracy. That’s dictatorship.

Has WS thought of the precedent he’s trying to set? If he, just anybody, can ban a book, so can someone else.  What if a high school library had the religious texts and someone wanted to ban the one he reads because of the content in the book of Song of Songs? He had the freedom to make his choice about how his children were educated, and he acted according to what was right for his family. He is not in the position to decide what is right for other families. Has he thought about the fact he is taking away rights? I thought his kind were against that. If you want your own freedoms, you have to let others have them, too.

Banned Book Week: List Maker?

Happy Banned Book Week! Are you reading something challenged?

So often, books that are challenged are done so because the content is challenging. Something about the plot, the characters, or the diction challenges someone’s notions. That person then decides that such a book should not be made accessible to any child/teen reader. What often gets lost in the discussion is the difference between access and appropriateness. A parent deciding that because Xavier got nightmares after watching 28 Days Later, Xavier should not read The Hunger Games is valid. Parents are gatekeepers of their families to an extent. What they are not is the moral police for everyone else’s children. Some parents pre-screen books. Others read with the child and have discussions about the challenging content. These are parents acting appropriately and responsibly. To deprive a whole population of a meaningful text because the word “scrotum” (The Higher Power of Lucky) makes you personally uncomfortable is not.

I am going to guess that Girl Parts by John M. Cusick will make it on some lists. I think writers and their editors have to have some inkling that the challenging content will ruffle a few feathers. Why? It opens with a teenager committing suicide on the Internet and a Joe McFrat Jr.-type character who could care less. That apathy propels the plot to his needing companionship in the form of Rose. Rose, a robot, then challenges notions of humanity. As she explores her burgeoning sentience, she, well, explores her sentience.   The novel Deenie first dealt with that topic. Deenie has also been put on banned and challenge lists.

If Girl Parts does get challenged because of that scene, teen readers will miss out on an engaging, realistic, to-the-moment read on tehcnology’s effect on human psychology. The Metro newspapers ran an article recently about people who use the Internet in their suicide plans. It’s a timely topic, especially given the latest Japanese trends of virtual girlfriends and techno rehab camps in China. Rose’s moment is just one strand in the larger web defining the human construct.

Don’t force ideas out of the classroom or libraries. School and new ideas are supposed to be challenging.

Word Jumble

I have much to say but feel nothing will come out today save for an incoherent mess. I was up until 1:30 a.m. reading the hotly anticipated Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, you see.

(Not a) Spoiler Alert

–  How do you all feel about spoilers? What level of spoilery? Do you just want to refrain from names, plot developments, the last word? Do you want to refrain even from what those things are not? Do you you want to stick fingers in your ears and say “LA LA LA, I can’t hear you!” if I try to tell you that by page eleventy-two you will need to cuddle with something? Or that by page eleventy-seven you will sobbing?

I suppose I spoil (however lightly) out of a desire to try to protect the ones I love from books. Because some lines in books have a way of giving you the feeling of “Pow! Right in the kisser!” And some do that over. And over. And over again. In rapid fire succession. Some books have a way of delighting you in one moment and laying bare this un-articulated vulnerability. Words have power.

I heard recently that President Obama gave The Hunger Games (first in the series) to his elder daughter. I hope he, and all the other world leaders read this series and take it to heart. Then again, anytime I encounter a dystopic, post-apocalyptic fiction, I always want to make sure the people in charge are as emotionally invested. I’m sure my parents thought it wasn’t so smart for my 13-year-old self to watch The Day After on cable. And now why at 25, I tell my father, my main movie date, that I will never, ever watch or read The Road.

The Child in Fiction

In college, I took a few classes with John Cech, a great student of children’s literature. One was “Children and Film.” Yes, we got to watch Disney movies, but also very adult movies with child actors. We were encouraged to watch a film related to the week’s theme that had a portrayal of a child but was not necessarily something you’d pop in the DVD player for just any 8-year-old. Another class was “From Hermes to Harry Potter.” That was a study of the archetypal children in fiction. It took a couple of years to let the molds fade from my brain. I can enjoy a book again without analyzing it immediately as an orphan story and predict when he will meet the Wise Earth-Mother (if it so happens to be an orphan-hero journey crossover).

I suppose I write this to make sense of what I’ve just read. The first two books of the series (especially the first) are definitely classifiable as true Young Adult. This last one –  I feel discomfiture to give it to Malia once she’s powered through the THG and CF. It’s the mama-bear mode in me. I’m godmother to a 10-year-old boy who gets nightmares from The Terminator movies. Some children are sensitive. Heck, I’m sensitive. But I’m an adult and I can process and recover from things. Things like this last book. If you’re truly in media silence, stop reading, even though I give away nothing terribly revelatory.

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Who’s still here? This last book…it dredged those memories of class because it can be classified as literature about children. They are not the main characters.  They are not narrators. At 17, Katniss is a young adult, emphasis on the latter word. But they are in the book, in a crucial thematic way. I read this last book with the sense it was about the way people use children. When everyone else is caught up, we can have discussions about one particular phrase uttered by PC and its relation to what’s been going on in Europe and Japan for a while now.

Whenever people ask me why write fiction for children (or about) or even read it, I try to articulate in that foreign language  of spoken word the notions hinted at in this post – that for some reason, we the adult readers are sensitized more to an emotional response when it involves children. That children, who are literally the future, are sensitized more to everything in general are more likely to remember their emotional response to a book (see Everything I Know I Learned from a Children’s Book by Anita Silvey) and hopefully, if it was about a future no one would want, those readers would grow up and prevent it from happening. I say often that words have power. I’m slightly off. Children have power.

Mean What You Say, Say What You Mean

Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead are two brilliant explorations on communication. But should our own real-life interpersonal realtions involve such dramedy?

A dear friend passed on this story of a woman who thought she was being clear when ordering at Starbucks:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/waitwait/2010/08/16/129234614/showdown-at-starbucks?ft=1&f=112176971

Below is the link to the journalistic  piece (in the sense it is froma  paper, which implies some standards – we’d hope):

http://www.nypost.com/p/news/local/manhattan/venti_size_fury_A0uKw71Ky1UAOksmbjrBhI

Yes, I do get narrowed eyes when I order my small Frappucino (no whip). Inevitably I play their game and say “tall.”  I had no idea coporate-inflicted training was causing earnest people in need of a paycheck to follow procedure to the point where “a multi-grain bagel” is not clear enough.

Having worked in the retail business for far too long, I have learned a few things that impede communication.

1) The barista could have been under supervision and wanted to go by the book. Similarly, the barsita could have been warned about “secret shoppers” who will rate the store on this person’s performance, down to the script undoubtedly from some green binder memorized during training. [Note: I have never worked at Starbucks, but have at a coporate monolith, and such places literally iterate every last little “i” in conversation).

2)  The construction of this store’s “language” has so influenced the barista and Western society at large that anything else sounds like it’s coming from a foreigner.

What do we do?

A) The customer is always right. Handle things gracefully and humanly. And if she says just a bagel – first ask nicely if she’d like anything on top.

B) Order like Sally Albright in When Harry Met Sally.

C) Give in a little to the new language and customs. You’re entering their world with their worlds. Be gracious, too.

What does this have to do with writing?

I believe each literary expression creates its own microcosm. Characters develop their own slang (even the phonies). Writers will take words we know and ascribe new meanings to them, to the point where we can’t understand “our” language (see the opening pages to M.T. Anderson’s Feed). Personally, I think engaging with “new” languages enriches our experience with the world.

You mission: come up with a new word using common ones OR ascribe new meaning to an existing word.

Mine is “huggle” (hug+snuggle).

Sins of the Author

Lately, the child-lit digest is a twitter over author K.P. Bath’s arrest and guilty plea for possession of child pornography. Here’s a link to the Google News page so you can read and synthesize different journalists’ takes. http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&tbs=nws:1,sbd:1&q=kp+bath+author&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai=

The central question for authors, readers, and industry professionals is at what point should an author’s personal life be included with the reception and inclusion of a book? Can we keep the text separate from the creator, or are they intrinsically linked?

I’m reminded of the time a while ago some people got their knickers in a twist over a sighting of JK Rowling in a lingerie shop. My thought: the grown woman is married; what of it? And even if she had not been, what difference does it make? The rational way to think is that the author is not his/her story. The author is a person with a life outside the fiction, however much real events/people may have colored the creation of characters and plots.

But Bath’s crime was against children. As he decided to plead guilty (in exchange for dropping charges of distribution – CNN), I’m not inclined to give him any benefit of the doubt (like he had them for research for a project). I certainly wouldn’t let children near him, but do we let them near his books? Was it right for his publisher to cancel his forthcoming novel? I think the texts (devoid of any content related to his crime) can stand on their own and be enjoyed for what they are. It makes complete fiscal sense to pull his manuscript – no one will want to buy the man’s books, and he won’t be available for marketing. But editorially…I could argue for dissociating the work from the creator…a pen name, an anonymous provision. Think about your favorite Newbery/Printz/Caldecott winner. Would you justify still its existence if you knew the author/illustrator was convicted of a terrible crime?

Judging books by their creators and not their content can lead to the slippery slope argument  that if he’s this undesirable political party or if she’s with that group that stands for the thing I don’t like, then their work shouldn’t be supported. In regard to that, I say, put aside your personal beef and instead “Think of  the children.” They may need that book and your bravery to be actual parents and help them differentiate between idolizing the person in their head (this author is my very best friend!), the person who is real, and the fiction they love.