Talking about religion…

I have been eagerly following the discussion of Faith and Spirituality in YA Lit going on at Teen Librarian Toolbox.  I haven’t been talking about religion very much anymore on this blog.  It is one of those awkward topics after all, like politics, that people tend to avoid.  But I am still reading about it a lot, and I am very glad that others are talking about it.   After all,  I spent most of my life (including all of my teen years) as a person of faith in a non-mainstream religion, and I seem to always be drawn to stories that reflect the feelings that I remember from my religious experience, including the feeling of not wanting to be part of the religious identity I had always known.

starbirdHere are just a few of the teen fiction titles that resonated with me, and my admittedly unusual experience, on the subject of faith:

  • Hush by Eishes Chayil – This story addresses issues of sex abuse in a minority religious community in which reporting to the outside authorities is discouraged.  It affected me deeply since it was an issue for my former religion as well.
  • Like No Other by Una LaMarche – While there has been some discussion of the problematic portrayal of Hasidic Judaism in this book, I thought that Devorah’s emotional experience struggling with her faith and strict religious community was beautifully written.  I think that is an important story to tell, and I saw this story as a way of sharing parts of my own.
  • Starbird Murphy and the World Outside by Karen Finneyfrock – Starbird’s situation in this book is even more different from mine than the previous two on this list–she lives in a cult–but, again, it is the emotional experience that resonated with me.  When she leaves her home and interacts with the Outside for the first time, she learns that Outsiders are not all bad and that her ideas about the world might not be completely accurate.  This is, perhaps, one of my favorite de-conversion stories that I’ve read for its grace in capturing a nuanced experience.
  • Eden West by Pete Hautman – While I’m on the subject of cults*, I’ll throw this book into the discussion even though it won’t be published until April.  There are already too many cults in teen fiction, but I’ll allow this one.  Yes, the cult has some weird beliefs, but Hautman lets his character figure it out slowly and reluctantly.  No matter how weird one’s beliefs are, the process of leaving them is slow and reluctant.  Too many teen novels don’t get that.  This one does.  Watch for it.

A few other titles that make the list: A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt (atheism/agnosticism & Orthodox Judaism), Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu (Quiverful Christianity; Publishes in June 2015), A World Away by Nancy Grossman (Amish). On the nonfiction shelves: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson or Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler.  I have a running list going on my book list wiki.

None of these books is an exact match to my experience of religion or of separating from it, but each of them offers some glimpse into the world of making your own way in the world that is different from the way you were raised (or considering the possibility of doing that).  That is not an easy thing to do, and it is not easy to capture.  I am looking forward to the continued discussion on TLT, and I applaud them for taking up a topic that people often avoid discussing in mixed company.

Curious about my current religious identity? I shared that story here.

* When you are part of a minority group that isn’t often reflected in fiction, you tend to find similarities where you can.  There is an emotional resonance for me with these stories about cults because they are also a minority belief group. My discussion of these books should not constitute a commentary on religion in general or in specific.

Just-right adventures

How old should a child be before he or she should be allowed to ride public transit by themselves?

I don’t have a good answer to that question, and I don’t know that one exists.  If you go by the discussion I heard on my drive to work this morning on MPR News, it certainly seems like the two sides (free range parents vs. helicopter parents) will never find common ground.  I fall somewhere in the middle, probably closer to helicopter than I might like to admit.

The truth is that I know more than a few adults who are afraid or extremely hesitant to ride public transit by themselves.  I feel like I am forever assuring people that the city bus seems scarier than it really is while they counter with stories that begin with “I heard…” and end with something terrible happening.  The idea of convincing parents that their children should ride a bus solo seems rather ludicrous in that context.

busrideJust a few hours after listening to experts and callers weigh in on the topic, I happened upon a picture book that provided another perspective.  In The Bus Ride by Marianne Dubuc, a little girl rides a bus by herself for the first time.  Her bus ride looks a little bit different from my usual bus rides.  Her world is populated by what appear to be scary animals.  Wolves and bears board the bus with her.  They seem intimidating, but in the end, they are friendly, or at least benign.  The girl’s solo trip is not without adventure, but it is a quiet sort of adventure.  It seems like a just-right adventure in this book.

It doesn’t answer any questions or set any guidelines for solo bus travel, but it does portray public transit as a gentle place full of community, much like Last Stop on Market Street did.  That is a message that I can firmly get behind.  I still have no idea when I will allow my daughter to ride public transit on her own, but I sincerely hope that she will feel comfortable doing so as an adult.  Until then, we’ll be off in search of just-right adventures of our own, in books and in life.  Some solo, some together.

Read More:

  • Lenore Skenazy’s writes about letting her nine-year-old ride the NYC subway alone (and the response she got after she wrote about it) in this essay.
  • The recent NPR story about free-range parenting.
  • A review of The Bus Ride from one of my favorite kidlit review blogs.
  • Peek inside a bit of The Bus Ride on the publisher’s web site.

How we tell our stories

redbutterflyI didn’t realize what Kara in Red Butterfly and  I had in common until I was twenty-five pages into the story when she describes her “one blunt hand” that she always keeps hidden in her sleeve.

I couldn’t help but think that when I finally write my own story, I hope it takes at least that long to get to describing my limb difference.  It may be the first thing that most people notice when they see me, but it doesn’t have to be the first part of my story or even the main part of my story.

It isn’t the main part of Kara’s story either.  Her story is about family and belonging and how messy and difficult those things can get.  I don’t have personal experience with Chinese culture or international adoption, so I can’t speak to those aspects of Kara’s story.  I can say that it was really nice to read about a limb difference that wasn’t a trauma, and I can happily report that Kara doesn’t struggle to do anything.  She rides a bike and does all sorts of other tasks that people would typically expect she couldn’t do.  Those things aren’t a big deal.

That, honestly, kind of warms my heart a little bit.

My story isn’t about trauma, and my only struggle is convincing people I’m not struggling.  It feels really good to see a middle grade novel that gets that.  I would recommend Red Butterfly to young readers (ages 10-12) who are interested in a thoughtful story written in lyrical verse.

More about me and my limb difference on Fake Arm 101.

Sunday morning bus rides

marketstreet_bgMost Sunday mornings, my daughter and I ride a city bus to church and back home again.  We have waited for the bus in the rain and in the falling snow.  We have shared smiles with many different drivers and riders as we all explored our great city via public transit.

So I was excited to share Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena with my daughter.  How many picture books have families riding a city bus?  Only a few that I know of.  And none do it with the magic that Matt de la Pena brings to a simple bus ride.  Last Stop on Market Street is a celebration of city living that I want to share with everyone–especially those who question my appreciation for public transit.

In the story, CJ and his grandmother are riding the bus after church.  CJ asks question after question–Why don’t they have a car? How come that man can’t see? Why do they have to go somewhere after church?–and his grandmother answers them all with kindness.  I couldn’t help but smile as I read the story, and at the end, when they arrive at a soup kitchen to serve food to hungry people, I was reminded to look for opportunities to see beauty in the world.

On a chilly morning like this one, I have to admit I was silently wishing we were a two car family, so we could drive to church and my husband could drive to work.  But I thought of CJ and his Nana.  I thought of all the little moments I’ve had with my daughter on our Sunday morning bus rides.  I thought about my city and my church.  I am grateful that my city has a pretty great transit service and that my church has so many opportunities to help people.  Perhaps one of these Sundays, we will catch a later bus home so we can join the group that packs meals for homeless MCTC students after the service.

You can see some illustrations and read more about the story behind the book in this post at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

 

 

Reflections of a Book Reviewer

I recently turned in my last review for Library Journal. After eight years and over fifty reviews, I have decided to call it quits so I can focus on other aspects of my career. I have to admit: I will miss it.

Everybody is a reviewer these days. Thanks to sites like Amazon and Goodreads or social media, we can share all sorts of personal reactions to whatever media we consume when we feel compelled to do so, but there was something different about a review assignment.

newmomsIt was always something of an adventure to open a package from the LJ offices to see what my editor has assigned to me. Sometimes I was excited to dig into the book—sometimes not. Just once, it was the perfect book at the perfect time. I had recently returned to work from my maternity leave, and I had remarked on how few books there were for new moms that were about the moms (not the baby). The next book I received to review was The New Mom’s Survival Guide by Jennifer Wider. This assignment was also an example of having to separate the personal and the professional. My personal reaction to The New Mom’s Survival Guide: OMG! I am completely overwhelmed by all the things that might have gone wrong with my body. The professional version: “Sections are made for dipping into as needed rather than reading straight through.” It wasn’t about me. It was about the book.

glutenfreegirlAs a former English major, I know very well how being assigned a book can ruin it. But my LJ experience was different. More often than not, I ended up really liking books that I didn’t expect to enjoy at all. I never would have read Gluten-free Girl by Shauna James Ahearn if it hadn’t been assigned reading, and it turned out to be much more than a guide to eating for the gluten intolerant as I assumed. Instead, it was a beautifully written food memoir that would appeal to a much wider audience than you might think. It was a lovely surprise, and I’ve written before about how it inspired me to eat differently.

Not that I liked every book I reviewed. More than a few times, I trudged through a book reluctantly and breathed a sigh of relief when the review was finally turned in. But it was always a lesson in what it means to be a librarian. I had to ask myself about the book’s audience and accuracy (to the best of my ability to determine such). It wasn’t always easy to answer these questions—I am far from an expert in some of the topics I was assigned—but I took the job seriously. I tried hard to take the time and do the research to write a helpful review for the librarians who used them as they considered books for purchase.

I’ll miss the serendipity, the challenge, and the free books. ;) Maybe I’ll return to professional reviewing in the future, but for now I look forward to reading more for myself.

A few of my favorite review assignments from LJ:

Speaking of pirates…

While I am on the subject of pirates, which I referenced in this post, I’d like to bring up the only one-handed fictional character everyone knows: Captain Hook.  I spent most of my life really hating that guy.  You can imagine why.  It’s not easy having something so obvious in common with a terrible villain, especially as a kid.

I had to re-evaluate my anti-Captain Hook stance (a little) when my daughter started watching “Jake and the Never Land Pirates.”  In the show, Captain Hook is not only a villain but also a bumbling oaf.  It was hardly an improvement.  But as I watched, I noticed something.  He might have been a bad guy and a stupid guy, but he was never helpless because of his lack of an arm.  The show never, that I saw, had him struggling as a one-handed person.  He struggled with bad decisions and was defeated fair and square by the good pirates.  I’m still not crazy about the whole disability = villain trope, but at least it doesn’t equal helpless.  I think that’s a win.

In my new-found not-hatred for Captain Hook, I happened to read a couple of interesting books recently:

  • aliashookAlias Hook by Lisa Jensen is a re-imagining of the Peter Pan story.  In the book, Captain Hook isn’t the villain at all.  He’s a tragic hero who may be able to find a happy ending after all.  It’s part-historical novel, part-fairy tale fantasy, and an odd sort of coming-of-age novel.  There’s also a romance, which I appreciated.  How often do you see the person with the disability get the girl?  ;) It is far from my usual reading choice, but I rather enjoyed it.
  • hooksrevengeHook’s Revenge by Heidi Schulz is a children’s novel for middle graders (roughly ages 10-12) that follows Captain Hook’s daughter as she takes command of the crew after her father has died.  It’s a fun adventure full of humor and action with a girl at the center.  Jocelyn Hook is a two-handed heroine, but the book has some funny references to the disabled pirate stereotype that made me laugh.

Maybe pirates aren’t so bad after all.  And maybe people with differences aren’t as helpless as people think either. :)

A new look at the end of the world (or, another #YAlittrend)

“In the Bible, the end of the world went on for a whole book.  But the real and of the world, Aiden knew, would never be more than a paragraph or two. The real end of the world would just be small things piled up.” –Son of Fortune by Victoria McKernan

YA lit has explored all sorts of ways the world might end or change drastically in various post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels that have been popular in recent years.  The book I quote above isn’t about the end of the world at all, but I thought the quote was interesting since I’ve read several teen novels this year, including a few that will publish in the year ahead) that take on the Biblical end of the world in various ways.  The trendwatcher in me has been taking note of these:

  • vivianThis Side of Salvation by Jeri Smith-Ready explores the rapture and religious fundamentalism.  I liked the story and the suspense, and I think that the message that religious extremism should be avoided will certainly resonate with a lot of young readers looking for a middle ground.
  • Vivian Apple at the End of the World by Katie Coyle has a more satirical edge to it that I liked.  It’s basically a road trip novel with social commentary thrown in for good measure.  Not to mention a post-apocalyptic style world. (Pubs January 2015)
  • No Parking at the End Times by Bryan Bliss turns this trend on its head. This book takes place after the predicted End did not happen.  The family who banked their future on the prophecy is now homeless and navigating the challenges of the same old world. (Pubs March 2015)
  • Eden West by Pete Hautman is less about the actual end of the world and more about how it feels to live with the End hanging over you.  As someone raised in a non-mainstream religion with a similar focus on an End that could happen at any moment, I related to the story of being torn between the present and the possible future.  (Pubs April 2015)

I admit that my religious history might have me seeking out books like this out of personal interest, but it feels like a trend to me.  Or maybe it’s just the usual interest in non-mainstream religion (See also: Like No Other by Una LaMarche and Starbird Murphy and the World Outside by Karen Finneyfrock) that has always been a part of teen fiction.  Either way, I’m watching it.

See my previous discussions of trends in teen fiction here and here.

Princess Talk

princesspI am sick of talking about princesses.  I am sick of my daughter talking about how much she loves princesses, but I’m also sick of hearing and reading about parents hating princesses.  So when a review copy of The Princess Problem landed on my desk at work, I rolled my eyes and ignored it for a while.

Princesses aren’t going anywhere however, and neither was this book.  When I finally gave it a chance, I was pleasantly surprised.  The Princess Problem was more than a rant about how princesses are ruining our daughters.  It’s actually a guide to talking to our kids about the media they consume as it relates to princesses.  There are discussion questions for movies and ideas for healthy media consumption.  It’s a fantastic resource with a practical sensibility.  Find out more on the author’s web site.

While I’m on the topic of princesses, I want to recommend a couple of books that will appeal to both princess-loving kids and princess-hating parents:

  • The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale is an early chapter book about a princess who is secretly a superhero.  My six-year-old daughter was obsessed with this book for months, which is a pretty strong endorsement right there.  Definitely a fun pick for the kids who want to dress up in pretty clothes and do the rescuing.
  • Princess in Training by Tammy Sauer features a disappointing princess.  She’s not very princessy, but those non-princessy interests come in handy when a dragon sneaks in the castle.  This picture book is cute and fun.
  • Princess Sparkle Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh Schneider has enough pink sparkles on the cover to attract the princess loving kid, but the story isn’t really about princesses.  It’s about a girl and her doll and what happens when that doll is attacked by the family dog.

Parents and other people who interact with kids might also be interested in this post on Princess Shaming in which a librarian advises, “Find out what it is about the princess that makes your kid want to read about her and be her; find out what your kid thinks it means to play princess.”

Right on.  Instead of hating princesses, let’s think critically about them.

More trends in teen fiction

I have a few more #YAlittrends to add to the conversation started on Twitter months ago.  I added a few of my insights in this post, and here’s what I’m seeing in 2014 and ahead to 2015:

  • doubtfactGenre-blending – Is it magical realism or realistic fantasy?  Whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t fit neatly into one category like we are used to.  Some of the more interesting genre-blenders I’ve read recently: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton, There Will be Lies by Nick Lake, and Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King.
  • Distortion of Truth – This could be lumped in with the Secrets & Lies category I identified in my previous trend post, but I wonder if we’ll see more books focus on the media like The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi and How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon.  I think that teens are thinking about and paying attention to issues like the ones addressed in these books.
  • Verse – Novels in verse aren’t new (and there are lots of terrible ones out there), but I’ve read some particularly excellent or interesting verse novels this year.  The Crossover by Kwame Alexander is one that comes to mind as a standout, but I might also mention A Time to Dance, which I blogged about here, and The Red Pencil.
  • chanceyouThe Effects of Mental Illness – These books aren’t always the easiest books to read, but I’m glad that they exist.  The Chance You Won’t Return by Annie Cardi is a powerful look at one family dealing with a mental break.  All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven is a heart-wrenching story of suicide and bipolar disorder.  Whether it is about friends or family, the reality is that mental illness isn’t just about the people with the disease.  Also: Courage for Beginners by Karen Harrington and The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Any other teen fiction readers seeing trends?  Use the #YAlittrends hashtag on Twitter or share here in the comments.

 

An unexpected gratitude

I meant to post something about gratitude during the week of Thanksgiving, but the days were full of holiday preparations to the point that I had no time to spare on putting such words together. Now that I have a moment, let me express a surprising bit of gratitude: I am thankful for my mornings.

No one in my family is a morning person, least of all me, so any positive feeling at that time of day is outside of my usual. But things have shifted with the beginning of this school year. After years of getting up super early to take the bus to work well before my daughter woke for school, I have traded in my bus pass for a set of car keys.

My mornings are no longer a frenzied rush to make my bus. They are comparatively slower and much happier.  They have become my most treasured moments with my daughter. We talk about our dreams and plans over breakfast, and sometimes we even have time to share a story or two.  By the time I send her off to school and leave for work, I am smiling.  I can’t help it.

Best Time of Day by Eileen SpinelliOne of my favorite morning moments was from a story we read one day before school. The book was The Best Time of Day by Eileen Spinelli, and my daughter shared her own best, which was not far off from my own. She had a dreamy/happy voice when she said how much she loved mornings–at school. Her favorite time of day is that moment when she first gets to school. “There are kids and teachers talking and laughing. The piano is playing, and everyone is saying hi to each other and rushing around. I just love it so much.”

These are the moments I don’t want to miss.  It’s the stuff of happiness, right?  Watching this little girl experience the world as her own individual while sharing so much of who she is with her father and me makes me happy.   I’m grateful for moments like this.

alljoyHappiness is complicated though, especially when it comes to our kids.  Parenting is not all sunshine and lollipops.  You don’t need me to tell you that, I’m sure.  I probably didn’t need a whole book telling me that over and over in different ways, but I still read All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior.  And somehow, I even loved it.  For all the bleak stories and statistics in the book that threatened to be pretty depressing, it was all so fascinating.  She chronicles how the word “parent” turned into a verb, how kids went from being “economically worthless to emotionally priceless,” and how happiness plays a role in all of this stuff in a shifting world where there is no script for any of us.

In the absence of a script, it’s just love.  It’s just little moments where we read stories and talk about our favorite things.  It’s the days when we can’t help but smile.

 

Read or watch more: