Monday, March 17, 2014

Changing the Complexion of YA

One of the biggest highs a school librarian can get is the charge that comes after pairing a student with the right book. Connecting young people – especially reluctant readers – with literature is a remarkable thing, potentially life-changing on many levels. In my library, kids who have spent their lives avoiding reading have come back for more after finishing novels like Tyrell, Snitch, Perfect Chemistry, and Tears of a Tiger. Even more exciting than the fact that they’ve actually read cover-to- cover is the obvious thrill they get when they see characters who talk like their friends struggling with familiar (if heightened) problems. Their enthusiasm -- and surprise -- is a wonderful thing.
Sadly, though, so many great YA books feature jacket covers that only represent a tiny fraction of the kids at my urban public school. If we want kids to read, we need books that reflect them. Again and again, I’ve found four or five books in my relatively current and well-stocked library that matched a newly-reading student's interests, only to come up short on the fifth visit. Four books? Is that the best we can do?
If we are going to boost literacy, we need to address this problem, as young adult writer Walter Dean Myers so eloquently states in a recent opinion piece in the New York Times. Tracking his own youthful reading, he describes how it felt to be in love with reading only to realize that reading was a window into a world, it just wasn't his world.  

"...there was something missing," remembers Myers. "I needed more than the characters in the Bible to identify with, or even the characters in Arthur Miller’s plays or my beloved Balzac. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine."

He implies that, had things been different, he might not have dropped out of school.
How can we lament the reading abilities of the kids in our public schools and not address this incredibly important issue? How many times can students read The House on Mango Street and Myers’ own Monster? The market, profit-driven and self-interested as it is, will not address this issue; publishing houses are focused on kids who are already reading (hence the disproportionate number of characters who are white and female). 
 As Myers states, children need to see themselves in books, but the books need to encompass a wide range of tastes – dystopian thriller, action-packed non-fiction, confessional memoirs, supernatural romance, and the more typical realistic dramas that the students at my school devour. We need tons of books for boys. We need 50 Coe Booths, 100 Matt de la Penas. We need foundations, grants, an infrastructure for Latino and African American young adult writers that will help them develop their craft and to survive doing it.
If we don’t find a way to put books that speak to our students in front of them, then we can only blame ourselves if our children can’t read -- or just don't want to.


Friday, February 21, 2014

The Strange Case of Boy21


As a school librarian, I have the bi-monthly pleasure of helping to select books for our book club. This month’s club was full of amazing discoveries: Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses; Teri Terry’s dystopian mystery Slated; and Rick Yancy’s twisted take on Frankenstein, Monstrumologist. There is always one selection in the batch that I think of as my baby, the one that I want all the students to read (and that –yeah, I’ll admit it – typically makes me cry). This month, my book club baby is Matthew Quick’s incredible Boy21.

With a backdrop of basketball and urban blight, Boy21 is a YA novel with amazing texture and unbelievable heart. Finley, a troubled narrator who barely vocalizes, nevertheless has a lot to say about human decency and loyalty. Russ, the deeply traumatized Boy21 of the title, a basketball wunderkind who introduces himself to Finley by saying “I have been programmed to treat all humans with kindness,” is bizarre and completely believable. It’s a tough trick, but Quick pulls it all off to create a realistic novel that crackles like a profound human connection.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tablets don't inspire readers

Everyone thought I was a stick in the mud.  Fellow students in my children's lit class (taken for a librarian degree) reacted with dismay when I said I wouldn't hand my young son an interactive e-book. Interactivity seemed like the last thing a burgeoning reader needed. Looks like the research is showing that to be true -- at least according to an Atlantic article.

The research stats are pretty damning. The conclusion drawn --

A touch-screen device makes it all too easy for a child to dismiss reading as boring or “flat” in comparison with the instant gratification of games and apps. There are simply too many distractions just a click away. Children are most likely to engage with stories in the right environment and context, and that means away from a screen.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

Reading slowly, reading alone

In yesterday's New York Times, Colin Robinson discusses the vanishing network of professionals that used to support readers. One topic -- the loss of librarians as guides.

This variety of channels for the expert appraisal of books has been replaced with recommendations thrown up by online retailers’ computers. But as with so much of the Internet, the nuance and enthusiasm of human encounters is poorly replicated by an algorithm. For more personal interactions, many have turned to social reading sites such as Goodreads or LibraryThing.


The day before that, David Mikics wrote about the importance of offline reading in developing a sense of self --

The digital world offers us many advantages, but if we yield to that world too completely we may lose the privacy we need to develop a self. Activities that require time and careful attention, like serious reading, are at risk; we read less and skim more as the Internet occupies more of our lives. And there’s a link between selfhood and reading slowly, rather than scanning for quick information, as the Web encourages us to do. Recent work in sociology and psychology suggests that reading books, a private experience, is an important aspect of coming to know who we are.