Property of the Rebel Librarian,

Saturday, November 03, 2018

It should come as no surprise to any of my readers that I'm an OG book nerd. I don't ever remember NOT being able to read, and many of my childhood memories revolve around laying on my bed reading. In elementary school, I was quiet and bookish, and I tried not to be noticed. Most of the students in my blue-collar, working class school didn't get me, and as we see all too often, people are not usually that nice to people they don't understand. I was often teased for being a teacher's pet, a judgement that was in no small part reinforced by the fact that I found it impossible to disobey my teachers. In some of my classes, this meant I was often called upon to be the "class monitor", and to report students who were not following directions or who broke the rules. You can see how this would endear me to my classmates. Whenever I could, I would escape into books.

My bookish ways were a weakness in the eyes of my classmates, one they could exploit for their own entertainment, except for one time each year: the annual classroom reading competition. Our librarian had classes or student teams compete against each other for the number of pages read in a month, and for that glorious 30 days I went from being the object of ridicule to the class hero. I read not just a little bit more than most of my classmates; I read more by a factor of ten. This wasn't that hard to do, considering how many of my students never read anything at all, but it was a pretty good bet that whatever class or team I competed with for our reading contests would win. For one month, I suddenly became visible to the classmates who ignored me the rest of the year, and even the actively mean and nasty of my classmates backed off some, instead growling what I assume they thought were words of encouragement in my direction, hoping to ride my literary coattails to fame, glory, and class popsicles.

Eventually, elementary school ended, and I moved on to middle and high school, as we all do. I left behind my torturous recesses hiding on the playground, and met other kids who loved books, kids I could feel safe being myself in front of. I left behind being invisible, as well, and allowed my natural extroversion to show itself, leading me to be the loudly opinionated lover of discussion and debate that I am today. But no matter what else I have done in my life, or how I have grown and changed over time, nothing has changed the love-no, the reverence- I have for books and the written word.

And because in my heart I am still that little girl lying on her bed buried deep in a good book, Property of the Rebel Librarian may be my favorite new middle-grade book. The protagonist, June Harper, is your average book-loving seventh grader. She happily goes about her life, reading whatever she finds in the school library that interests her, until the day her parents discover a novel in her room they consider "inappropriate". Thus begins a sad spiral into a reading desert for June. The beloved middle-school librarian is suspended for providing developmentally inappropriate reading material to students, most of the books disappear from the school library, and June's own personal collection is rounded up and sanitized by her parents. June falls into despair, until a Little Free Library she passes on her way to school gives her an idea-she will round up copies of the banned books and turn her locker into a secret Little Free Library. Suddenly, students who have never shown an interest in reading can't wait to get their hands on a forbidden book. As reading fever grows, June comes up with a plan that just might save the library-and her own intellectual freedom.

I identified with both June and the librarian while reading this, though I admit I would NOT have been brave enough to confront the problem so boldly when I was June's age. I would, however, have been crushed if someone had tried to curtail my reading. Occasionally I picked up books I wasn't quite ready for (my parents' copy of The Joy of Sex comes to mind), but put them down again because I wasn't able to relate to their content at all. Thankfully, my parents believed in the freedom to read, and they supported my habit with frequent trips to the library and the bookstore. Allison Varnes clearly worships at the altar of books as well, and she and I apparently have similar taste in books. Many of the books that Varnes weaves into the novel as examples of "inappropriate" titles are books that I read and loved as a young person myself.

Nowadays, of course, I relate more to the librarian. In my current position, I am asked to justify a book that we teach in our high school curriculum at least a couple of times a year. Usually the complaint has something to do with profanity, or with controversial content. And we do read some novels that deal with pretty heavy subject matter: death and grieving, sexual assault, abuse, and suicide being a few. But these books also explore identity, and redemption, and healing; they provide a window into the experiences of others that allows our students exposure to diverse perspectives, and to think deeply about what it means to be a friend, or a child, or a partner; in other words, to explore the full range of what it means to be human.

Property of the Rebel Librarian is a middle-grade novel that empowers young people to stand up for what they think is right, and to respect the free exchange of ideas that contributes to greater understanding of our complex world.

Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, October 21, 2018

"In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.", Angela Davis

I recently listened to a podcast series called Seeing White, which explored how and why whiteness as a concept was a created, and how it continues to function in American society. (I know, I know, if you're someone who is also friends with me on social media you've heard me recommend this podcast multiple times. I don't care; you should listen to it.) One of the things I realized listening to the podcast was that even though I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about racial justice issues, I still have so much to learn about the history of race and the myriad ways white supremacy has been baked into the foundation of American society.

Bryan Stevenson's memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, provides more insight into many of the issues raised in the podcast. Bryan Stevenson is a civil rights lawyer who has spent his career representing people whose rights have been trampled on by a racist criminal justice system. Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson has argued cases before the US Supreme Court challenging the death penalty, and life imprisonment without parole for juvenile offenders. Just Mercy chronicles his early career; the cases he worked on and the legal issues they represented. Since his days as a young, overworked lawyer, Stevenson has become a sought-after expert on criminal justice reform. He has also, as head of the Equal Justice Initiative, given the country the first museum and memorial dedicated specifically to lynching victims.

Just Mercy does a beautiful job balancing legal theory with the very intense, very personal stories of the clients Stevenson and EJI represented over the years. Stevenson lays out a clear path from the racist policies of the Jim Crow era to the continued racist practices in the age of mass incarceration. He clearly demonstrates the inherent inequities in the jury selection process and the harsh realities of prison on juveniles who are tried as adults. Stevenson intersperses the stories of his clients with his own story, demonstrating a depth of compassion that adds emotional heft to an already powerful story. I don't know how anyone who reads this book could argue with the basic lack of justice in our so-called justice system. Just Mercy is a clarion call for reform, real reform, to a system that was designed to function as a form of social control over people of color and poor people, those who are the most vulnerable in our society.

My Year of King, #13-Christine

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Love at first sight. There's no other way to describe the feeling teenager Arnie Cunningham gets the first time he sees the 1958 red-and-white Plymouth Fury rusting away in the tall grass with a "For Sale" sign in the window. Thus begins the long and terrifying odyssey of a boy and his evil, demonic car known as Christine. The narrator of King's 13th novel Dennis Guilder has a bad feeling about the car from the start, but Arnie quickly becomes unnaturally attached to her. Named Christine by her previous owner, the car begins to exhibit unusual behavior right from the start. Her odometer runs backwards. Her dented bumpers and ripped upholstery begin to repair themselves. Her radio only plays songs from the 1950s. As Christine begins to rise from the rust heap to some semblance of her former glory, Arnie himself begins to change. His teenage acne clears up. He becomes more confident, standing up to his parents for the first time in his life. He starts working for the shady owner of the garage where he "works" on Christine, though he often can't remember making the repairs to her engine or exterior once they appear. He even gets the courage to ask out the new girl, Leigh Cabot, even though you could only describe his previous experience with girls as non-existent. With a new girlfriend, a new car, and new-found strength and maturity, Dennis should have been happy for his friend, but as the year goes on and Arnie becomes more and more obsessed with Christine, Dennis can only be afraid-for Arnie, and for anyone who comes between Christine and her new owner. When the deaths start, Dennis and Leigh try to convince themselves that they are imagining the malevolence they feel whenever they ride in Christine, but eventually they can no longer ignore the evil influence she has on Arnie, who has begun to change in ways that scare them both. But how to destroy the evil that resides in Christine's shiny chrome mirrors and gleaming red-and-white frame?

So far, I've enjoyed most of King's books just as much 30 years later as I did when I first read them, and this one is no exception. It follows some of King's now-familiar themes and motifs; children or teenagers as protagonists, an every day object possessed by something evil, and a weird psychological connection between said object and some poor slob who was just going about his life. This is one of the things that make King's works more than just monster stories. You can't help but have sympathy for Arnie, even as he becomes increasingly hostile and irrational. My only real criticism is that Dennis's character seems a little too good to be true. He's a little too mature, a little too self-assured, and a little too willing to stay friends with someone who was essentially popularity poison. But King does in Christine what King does best; exploring how regular people respond in extraordinary circumstances.

I don't remember loving the movie made from this novel, but then I really haven't liked most of the movies made from King's books, the most recent version of It being the one notable exception. I think that the special effects available at the time just weren't up to the creep-factor that the self-driving, murderous Christine required to be truly terrifying.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens' Agenda, Becky Albertalli

Monday, October 08, 2018

Simon is 16, gay, and in the closet. Afraid of how his friends, classmates, and parents will react when
they find out he likes boys, he lives a double life, pretending to be straight by day, and emailing back and forth with the anonymous and very gay Blue by night. When he accidentally leaves his email open on a school computer, another student, Martin, sees his conversation with Blue. Martin uses this knowledge to blackmail Simon into arranging a date between Martin and Simon's friend Abby Martin's threats and Simon's own increasing difficulty keeping his truth from his friends leads to tension in his usually close knit friend group, and when his relationship with Blue goes from virtual to irl, Simon finds himself struggling to adapt to the changes in his life.

This book is the inspiration for the movie Love Simon that came out last spring, and while I haven't seen the movie yet, if it is half as charming as the book then I know I will love it. Simon is such a likable, relate-able character. He perfectly represents the situation so many of the queer youth I know find themselves in. Society itself has moved so far in terms of LGBTQ+ acceptance it seems like everyone should be able to be out without fear, but the reality is much more complicated. There are still plenty of people out there who think being gay is a sin, and even people who claim to be accepting sometimes have trouble coming to terms with the issue when the person coming out is their own son, daughter, brother, or sister. Simon THINKS he knows that the people closest to him will be accepting, but taking that first step into the light makes a person incredibly vulnerable, and once that news it out there's no taking it back.

But Simon isn't a sympathetic character just because he is making this huge, scary change. It's because he reads like any normal (and by normal I mean weird) teenager. He can be selfish and self-absorbed, he can use people, he makes decisions out of fear of rejection and ridicule, and he makes poor choices about school and drinking and how to talk to his friends. But all of those things just make him more endearing, because he reads like a REAL PERSON. I mean, I can think of at least a half dozen teenagers I've known over the years who are basically Simon by another name. And not just gay teenagers, either. Some of the struggles Simon has are universal, though they make look different depending on your identity. How do I know my friends will stand by me? Who am I in relation to who my parents think I am? How can I tell if a person likes likes me? Anyone who's has been, or is currently, a teenager has gone through some form of Simon's journey.

Finally, and this is my favorite, the book is NOT TRAGIC! My wife and I joke that the gays always have to have some tragic end in every movie or TV show, whether that end is a job, a relationship, or their life. This book shows that life for LGBTQ+ folks doesn't have to be full of suffering and sorrow. Figuring out who you are and how to navigate romantic relationships are just part of growing up, and it's refreshing to read a story that treats that process as the normal part of life that it is, rather than focusing on how hard and sad and dangerous it is when the person is gay. Not that there aren't people who experience danger and sadness and anger in their coming out process, but focusing on that fact ALL THE TIME is just one more form of othering.

By the Time You Read This, Lola Jaye

Saturday, October 06, 2018

This book came to me by way of my Little Free Library. I can't really explain why I decided to bring it in. On the surface, it's not really my thing. Regular readers of my book reviews will know that I am anti anything that reminds me of a Lifetime or Hallmark movie. I don't mind sentimental stories, but when the emotional manipulation is so thick you can cut it with a knife, I just can't. But free books are free books, so it ended up on my to-read shelf.

Lois's father dies of cancer when she is five. On her 12th birthday, her aunt brings her a set of manuals that her father wrote for her in anticipation of his death. She is to open and read one on each birthday until she turns 30, the age her father was when he died. Lois, who has spent essentially her whole life grieving the father she barely remembers, anxiously awaits each birthday, ready to read the words of wisdom that he left for her. Along the way she learns a lot about herself and her relationships-with family, friends, and lovers-and comes to terms with the hole in her life that losing her father caused.

Super Lifetime-movie-like, right? I thought so too, and when I started reading I gave it 50 pages before I would abandon it for something less schmaltzy. And then, around page 75, I realized I was totally hooked. It's certainly not perfect-there are definitely sections where I was annoyed either by Lois herself, who essentially spent the majority of her life ignoring the people she had left in favor of the father she lost, or by some overly-sentimental little moment. But Jaye took what could have been a saccharine story and made it palatable, in large part because the manuals themselves, the only mechanism through which Lois or the reader can know her father, are full of self-deprecating humor, self-doubt, and real talk life lessons. No inspirational platitudes here; Lois's father admits his shortcomings and mistakes, and rather than being the untouchable saint Lois tries to make him, the reader sees a real person, struggling with his own mortality and his grief at leaving his young daughter to grow up without him.

While I certainly wouldn't describe this novel as literary, it is a decent example of what women's fiction, specifically chick lit, can be when done well. Of course, most of my criticisms of chick lit still stand-Lois's life is defined by her relationships with men (her father and others), there's a healthy dose of female competitiveness, and her professional success is shown as being hollow without the "love of a good man". But I got sucked in anyway.

The Bitter Side of Sweet, by Tara Sullivan

Friday, August 31, 2018

Fifteen-year-old Amadou and his young brother Seydou spend every day picking cacao pods on a plantation in the African Nation of Ivory Coast. Two years before, Amadou left his impoverished village in search of work, hoping to make enough money to help his family survive the dry season. Younger brother Seydou insisted on tagging along, wanting to be just like his big brother. Thinking they were being hired for day jobs working close to home, the boys were tricked into forced labor. Now, Amadou and Seydou must pick enough cacao pods daily to avoid the brutal beatings of the bosses in an attempt to pay back the money they "owe" to the plantation owner so they can return home. Problem is, the bosses won't tell Amadou how much that is, and in the two years he's lived on the plantation, he's never seen any of the boys actually repay their debt.

Near starvation, beaten down by the constant abuse and hard physical labor, Amadou is beginning to give up hope of ever escaping the plantation. That is, until Khadija shows up. The only girl Amadou has ever seen brought to the camp, she is a spitfire, constantly fighting against the bosses and trying to escape. Despite the rules he's made for himself over time designed to keep him and Seydou safe from the worst of the abuse, Amadou finds himself being inspired by her spirit, and when Seydou is injured cutting cacao pods, Amadou realizes that if he doesn't act soon, there's a good chance neither of them will survive.

This story is one of struggle and survival that takes the reader into the world of forced labor and human trafficking in a very intimate way. Amadou fights to retain his humanity, while at the same time trying to harden himself against the suffering of others. He sees it as the only way to survive his captivity; make no friends, stick your neck out for no one, keep your head down and do as you're told. Without Seydou, I think he would have lost himself completely, but having to protect his younger brother, physically and emotionally, forces him to persevere against the despair and hopelessness that could easily come from living in slavery.

The Bitter Side of Sweet is not Sullivan's first foray into human rights abuses in Africa. Her book, Golden Boy, describes the trafficking of albino children in modern-day Tanzania, who are considered by practitioners of traditional medicine to have special curative powers-but only in pieces. Sullivan brings a well-researched perspective to issues of human trafficking of children in that part of the world. Each of her books ends with an afterword that gives the real-life context for the stories she tells and highlights the ways in which global consumption and the effects of poverty drive modern-day human slavery. Sullivan's writing doesn't shy away from the brutality inflicted on victims of trafficking, but it also doesn't glorify it in any way. Her books are a good avenue for exposing young people to an important social justice issue, one that affects them whether they realize it or not due to the increasing globalization of our economies., and the way consumer behavior affects the people who produce the things we consume.

My Year of King, #11: Different Seasons

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

I'm not a huge fan of short stories, as a general rule. I like reading short stories in the context of English classes, or one at a time in magazines, but something about a whole book of short stories just doesn't really do it for me. Unless the author of said collection is Stephen King (or Neil Gaiman, but this isn't a post about him, so...)

Different Seasons is King's second short story collection, and it is clearly his best. Containing four
short (well, that term is relative in this case) stories themed around the seasons, it demonstrates King's mastery of the form. It proves that when pressed, King can, in fact, create amazing fictional worlds with well-developed characters and intricate plots without 1000 pages to work with. Whether you've read Different Seasons or not, you definitely know at least two of the stories in a different form. This is the collection that includes "Rita Heyworth and the Shawshank Redemption", which was shortened to just The Shawshank Redemption when they turned it into an amazing movie starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. It also includes the story "The Body", which was turned into the very popular movie Stand By Me, starring a young Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, and the gone-too-soon River Phoenix. "Apt Pupil", another story in the collection, is about a teenage boy who uncovers a Nazi war criminal hiding in plain sight in his suburban neighborhood and blackmails him into detailing all of the atrocities he perpetrated. The final story, "The Breathing Method", takes place in a gentleman's club (the old-fashioned kind, not the adult entertainment kind), where an elderly doctor tells a chilling tale of a woman giving birth under gruesome circumstances.

Every story in this collection is a masterpiece of the genre. Emotionally gripping, well-paced, by turns terrifying and heart-warming, together these stories represent the very best of Stephen King. As always, his characters ring true. This is not the first instance of King using children as sympathetic heroes, but "The Body" is the first time he explores the bonds of childhood friendship that he revisits so masterfully in It. Like many of his most terrifying stories, none of the monsters are supernatural, but real people doing terrible things. The only truly supernatural occurrence in the whole book is in "The Breathing Method". Truthfully, King doesn't need the supernatural stuff to create his spectres; his insight into the evil that human beings can do to each other in their greed or lust or fear is enough.

King has several more story collections in his catalog, and I remember some of them being quite good, but none of them rise to the level of Different Seasons. It almost seems a shame that he hit his high point in this genre so early in his career, but I don't care when this collection falls in the timeline of his works; it is a gift to the world that it exists.