“You are always in your skin.”

Isabel Allende is my new literary hero.  It has been years since I’ve read her books, but after listening to the Talking Volumes interview on MPR today, I want to revisit her old novels with the new vision of the author as a blunt and sassy lady–not really what I expected from a author of poetic sagas full of magical realism.

She spoke of changes.  “Every two years,” she said, “things change or you die.”  In her own life, things have changed many times over.   She was born in Chile in the 1940′s, and she grew up feeling shy and never quite fitting in.  Now she is an American citizen and a best-selling novelist.  Still, though, there is still that quiet little girl inside her somewhere no matter how far she gets from that point in her life.  “You are always in your skin,” she said.  You change, or life changes around you, but you are still you with your hopes, fears, and passions.   Just stronger and happier–hopefully.

houseofthespiritsThose magical sagas Allende wrote early in her career?  They aren’t her anymore.  She said she can’t even read The House of the Spirits now.  The worldwide bestseller that launched Isabel Allende’s career is “overdone” as she put it.  “Too baroque.”  I know how she feels.

My current journal is almost full, and in a few more pages, I’ll add it to my stack of old journals that I am afraid to look at again for fear of finding them “overdone.”  Perhaps even a bit “baroque.”  I’ve been keeping a journal since I was a teenager.  There are ups and downs of all sorts contained in those pages.  Maybe one day I’ll read through them, even the cringe-worthy teenage journals full of bad poetry, but for now they are better left in a stack gathering dust as I move on to a new book of blank pages.

I can’t help but wonder what the next two years will bring.

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Let’s Talk about the Arts

Last week I listened to a Round Table conversation about art, and I found myself nodding vigorously at so much of what the guests were saying that I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to relate it to my areas of interest–books, libraries, & community.  Here are some of my thoughts on the discussion:

The librarian in me was interested in ways that people connect with art, including the idea of community spaces.  One of the guests said “The social spaces that art creates, they can be just as important as the art itself.”   Of course, many people think of libraries as quiet places with lots of rules, but I believe, and there are many, many librarians out there who also believe, that libraries can be vibrant social spaces to access or create art in various forms.

The mom in me wanted to applaud the notion that anyone can be an artist.  Scratch that.  That everyone is an artist.  Artists do not exist in a separate group that the rest of us watch.   We are all part of the show.  I love the way that technology has made so many forms of art so accessible to amateurs, and I am glad that my daughter is growing up in a world where creative aspirations are within her reach with a lot of hard work.  Frankly, I appreciate this on a personal level too.

While I’m not usually the girl in line for autographs or wharever, there is a fangirl in me that values digging for the stories behind the art that speaks to me.  This is why I seek out author blogs or look for sketches from my favorite picture book illustrators.  It’s why I follow authors on Twitter.  I want to know about the writing life in all its gory detail.  It doesn’t take away from the magic of the art.  It highlights the humanness of the endeavor in a way that makes it much more alive.

There are so many great examples of artists (of all sorts) and arts organizations doing the innovative work that the Roundtable guests discussed.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Open rehearsals.  I remember attending a couple of Elgin Symphony Orchestra Open Rehearsal events as a teen in my home town, and I thought it was fascinating.  A quick internet search brought up several large orchestras that do similar programs, especially for kids.  What better way to see what being a professional musician is like than to see the preparation that goes in to performance?  
  • Blogging Your Blocks.  Publicizing one’s creative frustrations might seem like the last thing anyone wants to do in the world, but I’ll use Veronica Roth as an example here.  Her wildly popular book Divergent resulted in the opportunity to write a sequel (then turn it into a trilogy), and she’s been blogging her experiences as she continues the story.  Not only am I anticipating the next book more after reading her creative journey (as if it were possible for me to anticipate it more), but also there’s a deeper connection to the story and to the author now.
  • Reinventing spaces.  The Chattanooga Public Library launched a public laboratory space focused on connecting people to the production and sharing of knowledge.  Here in Minneapolis, the Walker Art Center’s Open Field is a summer time creative space for anyone interested in the arts.  There are all sorts of programs and plenty of supplies (and a Little Free Library) free for use when the weather is nice.    Then there’s Northern Spark.  This night-time festival reinvented the entire city as an interactive art gallery.  Absolutely amazing.

How have you connected with the arts in the past year or so?  Have you seen any really interesting opportunities to connect with art or artists?  What would you like to see?

Stories & Social Media

In the summer of 2001, I was sitting in a computer lab on the UIUC campus with my fellow Web Design for Libraries & Organizations students when someone piped up with a question: “Do you know what a ‘blog’ is?”

The response was mixed.

Eleven years later, “blog” is obviously a household word. As is “social network,” which I’m not sure I knew in 2001–if it even existed then since Facebook wasn’t around until 2004.

Three years before Facebook, in the fall of 2001, Jennifer Egan published the novel Look at Me in which a fashion model who has had reconstructive surgery after a disfiguring accident is invited to participate in a very Facebook-like project.  The book explores identity in a media saturated world in a way that feels more relevant now than it did in 2001. I found the book fascinating when I read it earlier this year.   I wonder what I would have thought of her version of social media if I would have read it in 2001.

It seems that Jennifer Egan still has an interest in social media.  Check out her latest short story written in tweets as part of the Twitter Fiction Festival.  It might seem odd to tweet a story or try to put any kind of fiction into 140 characters, but people are doing some very interesting things with the medium.  Plus, it’s participatory.  You can join in with a hashtag.  I love it.  :)

Twitter Fiction Festival

You can listen to Jennifer Egan talk more about the project on MPR here.  Tangentially, even if you’re not buying Twitter Fiction as a thing, consider what Egan said about empathy and judgment on Talking Volumes last year.  Seems to fall right in with this lovely headline: Reading fiction ‘improves empathy’ study finds.

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Warnings on Teen Books: Helpful Tips or Censorship?

Teen fiction is in the news, and it’s bad news again.  Last time it was too dark.  Now there’s too much profanity, and some people are suggesting a rating system or content warning on books for teens as a solution for parents who are overwhelmed by the thought of reading each and every book their kids want to read.

Today I sat at my desk, which happened to be piled high with the latest in teen fiction, as I listened to an MPR segment discussing the issue.  It hit all the usual points about protecting kids or empowering them as readers without reaching any kind of consensus.  That’s understandable.  It’s a nuanced topic, as many librarians have said.   What stood out to me in the show was the host’s apparent surprise at the passion of those arguing against a warning system.

The anti-ratings passion does not surprise me.  I think many of us, myself included, argue so fervently against rating the literature of our youth because we remember what we read as teens.  We remember how it resonated.  It moved us.   In many cases, it shaped us.  I think we know there’s a strong chance that many of those life-shaping books we connected with at a young age would not have been available to us if they’d had a rating or warning label for our more conservative parents, teachers, or other well meaning adults to see and judge.

I was one of the lucky ones.  Mom, if you’re reading this, I am incredibly grateful that you empowered me as a reader.  It is a big part of what made me the person I am today, and I am proud of who I have become.  I hope you are too.

Monday Morning Music with Bloodnstuff

It is a lovely name for a band, isn’t it? That’s what MPR Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer said about Bloodnstuff last Friday when she checked in with David Campbell, host of the Current’s Local Show, about new music in the Twin Cities.   I got the impression it wasn’t really her thing. ;)

It is a lot of people’s thing though, as evidenced by the sold out show at the Triple Rock a few weeks ago for their CD release.  The show happened to fall on a kid-free weekend for me (yay for grandparents!), so I  found myself crowded in with everyone else for what promised to be (and was) a great rock show.  Maybe their your thing?  Check them out:

Monday Morning Music from Rock the Cradle

The Current’s Rock the Cradle has become a family tradition for us, and, it seems, for every other family in the metro area.  Literally, thousands of families crowded into the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Children’s Theater Company yesterday for a day of family friendly music.  It was a lot of fun, as usual, despite the crowds.

The Bunny Clogs perform to a crowd at Rock the Cradle.

We missed our favorite local kids’ band, Koo Koo Kangaroo, but we did catch a performance of the Bunny Clogs, which was new to us.  This family band described themselves as “Shel Silverstein-meets-Prince surreal dance fun.”  How could I resist such a description?   Here’s a video from a few years ago when their record More! More! More! was released (as a bonus, the song in this video is about the Midtown Greenway!) :

Another highlight from the event was the Storytime with the Current DJ’s.  We happened to catch Steve Seel from the Morning Show reading Punk Farm, which is a favorite of ours.  He was appropriately enthusiastic with the reading, which a punk version of “Old MacDonald had a Farm.”  You can download the song or watch videos here.  It’s a lot of fun for preschoolers who dream of staying up late and parents who get all the music references.  He also read Leonardo the Terrible Monster and Monkey with a Tool Belt.  Great choices!

Steve Seel reading Punk Farm.

My favorite part was the Kid’s Disco.  I love to watch the kids dance their hearts out.  As a music lover, I like to see them getting into the songs, but, as a mom, I love to watch my very active kiddo have a chance to get all her sillies out surrounded by all sorts of kids who are doing the same thing. You know, if the Current threw regular family dance parties, we would be there.  In fact, Ladybug actually said on the dance floor “Mama, this is almost like a dance party!”  Um… almost?  :)

We’ll be going to Rock the Cradle again next year, I’m sure.  Though, I think we will secretly be hoping that everyone else decides to skip it due to the crowd.  Meanwhile, we’ll be listening (and dancing) to Wonderground Radio, which is a great mix of family friendly music.

P.S. If you are interested in introducing your preschooler to music, stay tuned to this blog.  Later this week, I’ll have a guest post about just that from a music teacher/musician!

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Thoughts on Awards Eve

I recently listened to a discussion on MPR with Kurt Anderson about this Vanity Fair article on American culture.  He observed that things haven’t changed much in the last 25 years or so, and one of the reasons he cites is a cultural nostalgia.  He writes,

“Ironically, new technology has reinforced the nostalgic cultural gaze: now that we have instant universal access to every old image and recorded sound, the future has arrived and it’s all about dreaming of the past.”

Perhaps he’s right.  He certainly makes an interesting case.  Looking at the area of pop culture I know best–children’s books, obviously–he certainly seems on the mark.  Look at last year’s Caldecott Award winner: A Sick Day for Amos McGee has a vintage look to it that make it seem like it could have been a book from my childhood rather than the newly published picture book that it is.  Not to mention, last year was clearly a historical fiction year for the Newbery.

If nostalgia is still at play in this year’s awards (announced tomorrow morning, for anyone not eagerly anticipating them like myself!), my predictions are Grandpa Green by Lane Smith for the Caldecott and Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt for the Newbery.

I wouldn’t complain if those were the books that took the awards this year, but I have to admit, there is a part of me that really wants this to be the year for humor.  Mostly, I just want I Want My Hat Back to win.  It’s kind of dark and cynical in a way that children’s just aren’t usually, and I love it.  I’d be surprised if it won, but I’m pulling for it.

In any case, I’m excited!  I’ll be up early tomorrow morning to hear the announcements live from the conference in Dallas.  Happy awards Monday, everyone! :)

What Novels Eat for Breakfast

“The great thing about the novel is that it eats categories for breakfast.”

–Lev Grossman (author of The Magician King) on what is and isn’t fantasy

As a librarian, I often find myself trying to put books into neat categories.  In my office, there are three of us that cover teen fiction, and we split it into genres.  I have realistic fiction, another librarian has paranormal and science fiction, and the other has fantasy.  But what exactly is the difference between any of these genres anyway?  Where are the lines?  Is The Future of Us realistic or science fiction?  How about magical realism? What level of magic tips it to paranormal or fantasy vs. realistic fiction?  Does The Book Thief fall into historical or does Death being the narrator push it into some form of fantasy?

These are the questions that I wonder about on an almost daily basis at my job, and this morning MPR re-broadcast an interview with Grossman about his new novel and the larger world of fantasy literature that made me stop and pay attention despite the fact that I rarely read anything approaching the fantastic.  He made the statement quoted above in a larger point that the idea of what is or isn’t fantastic is almost certainly going to change–just as science fiction from decades ago doesn’t seem so futuristic now that we live in an era of pocket computers.

I must admit, it does seem like some of the best books are the ones we don’t quite know what to do with.

Intro to Astronomy

I am far from a scientist myself, but I must admit to feeling a great sense of excitement when I hear about the newest discoveries and ideas in the sciences.  This past week I listened to a discussion between two astronomers, Ken Croswell and Craig Wheeler, about the year in astronomy on MPR.  All the talk of new planets and black holes and stars has my curiosity stuck  in a flurry of placing holds on the library’s web site for science books that I’ll probably check out and not actually read.  Oh, I’ll browse through them, but I’m not likely to read enough of them to put them on my “read” list.  Unless they’re children’s books, of course.  I love children’s science books.

I started with Ken Croswell’s books.  The Lives of Stars and 10 Worlds: Everything That Orbits the Sun look to be about my speed when it comes to science.   I’m excited to read these books, but I must admit they probably won’t make a year-end favorite list.  My favorite science books are less about science and more about stories.  I guess that’s why I love Catherine Thimmesh’s  Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon.  For me, what really gets me interested in science is the behind the scenes.  That’s what I love about Radiolab.  Of course, as I mentioned in this post the genius of Radiolab seems to be that it sticks pretty close to the third grade level in their science.  Though you wouldn’t know it to listen to the show.  Or I wouldn’t anyway. :)

For those of you who like to get beyond children’s books and third grade in your science, I happened to notice that one of my favorite tweeting scientists has a new book coming out in 2012 that I plan to put on my “to read” list.  Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil DeGrasse Tyson is due out in February.

If these books aren’t enough to crack open even a little interest in science, then perhaps this science music video will do the trick:

Reading the Afterlife

This morning I listened to Chuck Palahniuk talk with Kerri Miller on MPR’s Midmorning.  His latest book, Damned, is written from the perspective of a dead girl, and the first excerpt he read from the book took on the afterlife and how it feels to be dead.  Madison narrates the story from Hell, and it is interspersed with asides that start “Are You There, Satan? It’s me, Madison.”  Sounds like Palahniuk’s usual subversive self is at work again, and I can’t wait to read it.

Though to be honest, I guess I have a strange affection for books narrated from the afterlife.  I hadn’t noticed before, but when I started listing books in my head I realized that off the top of my head I could think of several: The Lovely Bones, If I Stay, Sum (which I blogged about here), and Please Ignore Vera Dietz.

I mentioned Please Ignore Vera Dietz briefly in this post about teen fiction that addresses addiction, but I skipped the the fact that among the book’s several alternating narrators is Vera’s late friend Charlie, “the dead kid.”  He describes the afterlife as such:

“You’re surprised? You had a different idea of the afterlife? This goes against your religion?  Well, what did you really know anyway? No one living understands dying, and no matter what they dream up–from harps and heaven to pickles and Big Macs–they can’t prove a thing until they’re on this side.”

I guess that’s it.  When we don’t know something, there’s plenty of room for making up stories about it.  Those of you who read teen fiction may want to check out some of the titles on this list for various takes on what the fictional afterlife.  Everyone else: listen to Chuck Palahniuk read from his new book.  Tell me it doesn’t sound intriguing.