Summer work/Summer reads

While I was still enrolled at Western this summer, completing Collection Development with Cameron Hoffman—which I adored, incidentally—I was also working. I resumed my old post of camp facilitator at the Canada Museum of Science and Technology, which meant a lot of organization, coordination, and spreadsheets, but also occasionally covering someone for programming:


cryogenJulia does science!

Courses are back in session; I’m taking Readers’ Advisory Service this semester, have a few left-over thoughts from Young Adult fiction, and am still enjoying the general absurdity that is information policy and intellectual property in the digital age.


A few of my summer reads/rereads…

…plus those that were borrowed from friends, currently on loan, or purely digital.

Proxy by Alex London – The Whipping Boy meets Elysium meets Mad Max

At 16-years-old, Syd has years of debt to work off, just for being taken in by a public orphanage. He’s determined to keep his head down and not rack up anymore, but things aren’t so simple when you’re a proxy: life for a proxy means taking the punishments for your patron’s bad behaviour. When the recklessness of his spoiled patron, Knox, accidentally gets a girl killed, Syd is set to serve the lifetime in prison in his place. Instead, both boys end up on the run and the ensuing chase will determine the future, not only of the two boys, but of their city and its entire way of life.

‘A futuristic Whipping Boy‘ sounds contrived, but London’s execution of the idea is admirable: amongst a proliferation of dystopian futures, the proxy system is one of real coherence. The gap between rich and poor doesn’t just exist arbitrarily, but is continuously reinforced through accumulated debt, and the entire system is vividly rendered within a few chapters. Proxy wastes little time, and its short chapters and tense action scenes make it immensely readable.

Both Syd and Knox are compelling and complex characters, neither simply ‘victim’ or ‘abuser’. The mutual reliance and friendship developed between the two as Knox graduates from Syd’s hostage to co-conspirator is an engaging underpinning of the high-stakes adventure. It’s worth noting that Syd is gay and self-described as ‘brown,’ both traits under-represented among dystopian heroes, and gay actions heroes are long overdue in media generally. Being gay is part of Syd’s character—it informs his own thoughts and others’ interactions with him—but it isn’t an integral part of Proxy’s plot. What is integral is some serious biotech, a secret rebel movement, mercenary outlaws, a concept borrowed from Jewish theology (‘Yovel’, or Jubilee), and a lot of tightly-plotted action.

Proxy has a sequel (Guardian, released 2014), but the book has a satisfying, if somewhat open-ended, ending and could be read as a stand-alone.

Highly recommended, for ages 12 and up.
London, Alex. Proxy. New York: Philomen, 2012.
Alex London runs his own tumblr, where he regularly interacts with readers.
Download the first 3 chapters of Proxy for free here or see the mini-readalike under the cut, which has a few recommended reads based on some of Proxy‘s characteristics and elements.

Check out Alex London’s “4 Things I learned (and 1 thing I didn’t) while writing Proxy,” at Diversity in YA.

Proxy poster by Kolorgasm

click through for mini-readalike

A Few Notes on Young Adult Dystopian Literature

dystopiasMy classmate, Sarah Dashow, and I created a seminar on YA  Dystopian Literature for our course this week. I might still do a little tweaking, but you can see it here. Had fun with the themes and element key in particular.

All this means that I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about YA dystopias recently, so this post ended up as less of a response to my readings, and a little more like a few leftover thoughts and, alright, maybe a little defensiveness caused by reading a lot of fraught online discussions in the course of research.


1. There’s always a first time to hear the same old story.


I read All Good Children by Catherine Austen, among several other dystopian YAs, recently and it seemed to reinforced one of the main ideas I had about the popularity of dystopian narratives among YA writers and readers (it was nice to see a standalone novel, though). In particular, I was thinking of the greater appeal for less experienced readers who haven’t encountered as many iterations of the same conventions, elements, or themes that define dystopian literature. The use of drugs to make citizens easier to manage, for example, is a well-established trope, going straight back to Brave New World‘s soma—seriously, the specific All Good Children-style version has even got its own the trope name and everything; Government Drug Enforcement. Within recent YA dystopias there’s the mind-influencing serums of Divergent, the lobotomy-esque surgery of Uglies, and mood-altering pills of Matched, among others. And that entire trope feeds into the dystopian notion of lack of free will as a kind of ultimate evil to overcome, which is prevalent in a variety of forms. Hey, you even get a little bit of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe from All Good Children.


As11872039 someone fairly well-versed in genre conventions—and who’s watched their fair share of 70s and 80s sci-fi movies—there’s a lot that I recognize. When I read Uglies and the protagonist meets someone who has grown old without the world’s ubiquitous cosmetic surgery for the first time, shocked and horrified by the unfamiliar site, I hear the echo of the first time the characters of Logan’s Run meet an old man, the first human over the age of thirty they’ve ever seen. (Incidentally, the dystopias of the late 1960s and early 1970s like Logan’s Run are a great example of the ways in which dystopias often echo contemporary social anxiety—see below.)


2. Romance in dystopias and dystopian narratives that don’t centre entirely upon the dystopia and its dire warning, and are maybe a little more about escapism than social responsibility, are not a new YA-lit-for-silly-girls phenomenon.


Dystopian narratives are being widely used as vehicles for romance within YA literature, especially for teen girls, but I’m not about the join the ranks of those bemoaning the rise of dystopian romance in YA lit as a decline or dilution of the ‘real’ dystopia. First of all, romance in dystopia isn’t exactly a departure from its roots—Nineteen-Eighty Four‘s narrative wouldn’t exist without Winston and Julia’s relationship—and love is the ultimate signifier of humanity, a humanity that dystopias often repress or disrupt. Secondly: dystopian narratives stripped of most of their pressing didacticism have existed for a while and are not some kind of new aberration caused by recent popularity. Who would read such trivial things in a potentially transformative genre? Obviously teen girls. Or, you know, grown men. I’m looking at you, cyberpunk. Or really any gritty sci-fi/noir action story that has a messed up society because otherwise how would the male antihero prove how totally hardcore he is? Dystopian narratives less concerned with overt social critique—considered leisure reading instead of serious literature—are not new. The rise of young adult literature, and of dystopian YA specifically, has put this kind of narrative under more scrutiny, but I tend to be suspicious of aspersions cast on things popularly viewed as created for and loved by young girls. I suppose there’s potential for a conversation about what responsibilities, if any, writers of dystopian literature have, if people feel inclined to have it, but I feel as if a lot of this is being addressed with a kind of mistaken mentality that we, as a culture, hopped right from Brave New World/Nineteen-Eighty Four to The Hunger Games, which ignores a lot of the genre’s history and development.


3. Huzzah for the rise of the female dystopia! Okay, now, how about everybody else who isn’t white or straight?


I hope the prevalence of dystopian YA will complicate and open the genre. For all that traditional dystopian literature engages with problems in society, it comes from a very specific tradition: the white, straight, male tradition, of course. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was remarkable and unusual as a dystopia from the female perspective, divergent from the tradition. Dystopian literature for women has since exploded in dystopian YA. People of colour and queer people deserve their narratives, and are too often swept under the rug in dystopias. (Incidentally, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) are brilliant dystopic post-apocalyptic works at intersection of race, gender, and class, but her work has long suffered from the marginalization of genre fiction and, tellingly, her presence within the traditional canon of genre fiction—though infinitely well-earned—is considered a sign of genre tokenism instead of diversity).

* A lot of the late 60s/early 70s dystopias were concerned with overpopulation and depicted societies either suffering from its effects or with strict population control measures in place; the overpopulated nightmare of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, published in 1966, was turned into the movie Soylent Green in 1973. Kurt Vonnegut depicted a crowed world with voluntary ‘suicide booth’ to keep the population down in his 1968 story Welcome to the Monkey House, and the society of Logan’s Run, in which no one was allowed to live past twenty-six, came out as a book in 1967 and was adapted for the big screen in 1976.

The graph belows shows the frequency of the use of the terms ‘overpopulation’ and ‘population control’ in over 5.2 million books digitized by Google. Apparently population was on the minds of more than just a couple sci-fi authors.


‘LGBTQ Fiction’ and LGBTQ Representation in YA Literature: Time to disrupt the heteronormativity

12000020Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe is a lovely novel. Written from the perspective of Aristotle, the book is well-served by simple but elegant prose. It’s about negotiating identity, and not just in relation to sexual orientation, but also in relation to to family and culture—Aristotle and Dante are both Mexican American and they struggle with defining their relationships with their Mexican heritage. Aristotle and Dante is also about friendship and love in a variety of forms, not just about romance. The relationship between Aristotle and his parents is an important one—the book is about wanting to understand your parents, not only about wanting to be understood—and they’re fully realized characters in their own right, not always the case in YA fiction. The novel deals with serious issues such as PTSD, incarcerated family members, the subtle effect of cultural racism, and features some violence, but it’s ultimately a slow-paced and mellow narrative that remains, at its core, a coming-of-age story of friendship between teenage boys.

23228I’ve been thinking about the subject of ‘LGBTQ literature’ since two of the young adult books that I’d already read before we talked about LGBTQ YA in class had featured characters who weren’t straight—one protagonist was gay, the other lesbian (Kind of. The lead ends up with a woman, but I read her as bisexual. Works either way, that’s kind of the point)—but neither of those were explicitly ‘LGBTQ lit’.  A classmate read David Leviathan’s Boy Meets Boy and commented on the casual visibility of LGBTQ characters in the town. I later discovered that the book is overwhelmingly referred to as a ‘gay utopia’ or a ‘gaytopia.’ This seems like a reflection of the problem underlying LGBTQ representation in YA lit—it’s still limited to its own ‘genre’ corner.  If you write a fluffy romance for queer characters, well, it kind of has to be in a world where queer people actually exist and aren’t discriminated against—real levity doesn’t mesh with the kind of of conflict created by homophobia and discrimination, and your characters need to be normalized, not odd ones out—rom com leads are every-day people, if a little quirky, (just like you!) who are in love. The fact that when you write light romances for queer kids, everyone identifies it as utopian fiction, well, that says something. It isn’t a good something. Gay kids deserve the conventions too. But the conventions, as we recognize them, are heteronormative.

I get the feeling (and I really hope) that we’re reaching something of a tipping point here. As I mentioned, two of the books that I read this summer that didn’t star straight teens, Ash and Proxy, were both really well-written, enjoyable books in completely different genres—fairy-tale fantasy and sci-fi action respectively—that I wouldn’t identify as LGBTQ books first and foremost. I mean, I would certainly mention it if someone where looking for gay leads, but Proxy is a sci-fi action novel, not ‘gay sci-fi action.’ I’ve seen the term ‘LGBTQ-friendly’ used to describe this kind of spreading representation. I look forward to more representation of LGBTQ characters in ‘LGBTQ-friendly’ fiction; it’s needed to disrupt the heteronormativity that pervades stories of every experience that isn’t explicitly ‘not for straight people’—coming out, dealing with homophobia, being gay or bi or transgendered in a predominantly straight, cisgendered society.


A few resources for those looking for LGBTQ and LGBTQ-friendly YA lit:

True Colorz: ‘Young Adult LGBTQ Literature’

‘I’m Here. I’m Queer. What the Hell do I Read?’

Rainbow Books: ‘GLBTQ Books for Children & Teens’

and, of course, many YA book blogs have ‘LGBTQ’ tags or, alternatively, many LGBTQ book blogs have tags for ‘Young Adult’ tags:

Lambda Literarary: ‘Celebrarting Excellent in LGBT Literature since 1989’

Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian: ‘A Queer Canadian Book Blog’

Wrapped up in Books

Fahrenheit 451 Redesign

Love this concept design by Elizabeth Perez.


Fahrenheit 451 is a novel about a dystopian future where books are outlawed and firemen burn any house that contains them. The story is about suppressing ideas, and about how television destroys interest in reading literature.

I wanted to spread the book-burning message to the book itself. The book’s spine is screen-printed with a matchbook striking paper surface, so the book itself can be burned.   (via)

On Reading Garth Nix’s Sabriel and the Value of Fantasy, Then and Now

(Hint: It’s about world-building and, when you’re younger, getting away with things.)

01 The first, second, third, and fourth gates, from Sabriel, by Laura Tolton


It’s been really interesting doing young adult lit readings this semester, within the context of my Young Adult Materials class; thinking about my reading habits when I was younger; considering the books that have stuck with me and why they did; and the continuing awareness of alternate perspectives of materials when reading. The fact is that many of these books haven’t given me much as a reader, which I don’t mind; for me, right now, they’ve been largely fun, but ultimately not exatly satisfying. Not that they weren’t good, objectively, but they weren’t what I’m reading now, what I want or need, subjectively. That’s fine, But when I read them, I do it with my younger self in mind; and I can still feel the parts that resonate with that girl, feel the connection stretching back and I think yes, this line, this character, this book, this would have mattered. I can feel it for others too—for the nebulously existing ‘young adults’ that we talk about in class; I can think, yes, I can see where the value of this book is, in the language, in the themes, in the entertainment, but, understandably, it’s easiest to read through the eyes of younger-Julia, who I know best. I’ve felt echoes like this before when reading—as I mentioned in my post on discovering comics late—but I’ve never dwelt on them. The whole affair is a curiously pleasant experience, like reading aloud to someone else.


All this is a lead-up to a few brief thoughts on the book I read this week, Sabriel by Garth Nix, and, more importantly and generally, it’s genre: fantasy. Actually, sorry, I’m going to go ahead and summarily lump science fiction in with fantasy here; their natural tendency to bleed over their genre lines has on occasion ended up in the entire mess being covered by ‘speculative fiction’ as is. Some of our readings in future weeks are science fiction, but they fall firmly in the dystopia category, which precludes a huge swath of the work. But the main reason I’m rolling them together here is that the things that give fantasy value for me and particularly did for my younger self, correspond closely with science fiction.


Why I love fantasy then and now; world-building. Because I loved—and still love—systems of fantasy works. Social systems; magical systems; those that echo, expand, or subvert our own or those which are as whole as our reality’s systems—which feel as well-developed and integrated into the fabric of their world as religions and ideologies do in ours—but are still thrillingly alien. After I started reading Sabriel, the first thing I did when I saw my boyfriend was launch into a description of the systems that created the setting; charter magic, wild magic, necromancy by bells, and the world-building; details like the prevalence of magic interfering with technology means that the soldiers near magic-heavy areas carry swords as well as rifles. Of course, then he’s reading it Sabriel, because this infatuation with speculative world-building is one we share. Any speculative society, built on elements of unreality, as long as it’s built carefully and with consideration, is bound to catch us both.


02The fifth, sixth, seventh, and eight gates, from Sabriel, by Laura Tolton

So, world-building. That’s the primary reason I enjoy fantasy as a genre. That simple. Naturally each book has its strengths and weaknesses, and I don’t enjoy all fantasy by default, but the pleasure that an interestingly-constructed world gives me is so intrinsic to a reading experience that I find it difficult to describe. I’ve kept reading series that have developed characteristics which irritate me enough that they would cause me to ditch a stand-alone book, simply because I love the world they’ve created.


But there was another reason that these books meant so much to me as a kid; man, could you get away with stuff in speculative fiction. Seriously, guys, nobody tell the adults. This means something significant for younger readers; you get to experience new kinds of writing–you can, for example, get scared or deeply creeped out–and, more importantly, you get to engage with subjects that challenge you without the kind of scrutiny given to realism. Because those are the books I remember. Actually, I mentioned this in a post about challenged books I made around the time of Banned Books Week; because pursuing our faculty library’s shelf of banned books I recognized so many books that I had loved and could remember loving so distinctly on that shelf–works like The Golden Compass, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and The Giver. Alright, well obviously these books did get scrutiny, but that was because they had been getting away with it (and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I often see The Mists of Avalon come up in discussions about illicit reading experiences).


This came to mind because Sabriel revolves around necromancy and is, of course, therefore suffused with death in a way that isn’t necessarily unusual for speculative fiction, but that you would never find in young adult realism. Of course, death in Sabriel isn’t remotely the same as death in reality, but it provides interesting viewpoints on mourning and, best of all, gets some seriously scary monsters. The first encounter with the dead comes in the form of an attack by a spirit that’s been dead for so long it isn’t recognizably human and has stuff itself into a corpse to exist in corporeal form. And the scene that introduces it is horrifying and awesome. And my younger self would definitely have been with me on this one.


Fondly-remembered stories that totally creeped me out when I was younger; The Witches of Worm by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe, and Dead Water Zone by Kenneth Oppel.


I can both understand an urge to shield young people from the ugly realities of true fear and the wish to avoid them yourself, but it has to be said that well-played, fictionalized fear is gripping—advancing the plot, raising the stakes, and dragging you into a story. Young readers haven’t had the chance to discover this yet, and people are way less likely to object to you reading a book about necromancers than about real-life fears—good old fashioned regular human murders, for example–when you’re younger. For good reason, too: they aren’t really comparable. Within speculative fiction fear is something to be built up and ripped down, not something to be dealt with or endured as in realist fiction. A murderer or serial killer is one thing—a plot device, but a real possibility—and a murderer that’s a corrupted spirit inside a moldering corpse is another thing. There’s a kind of unique worth created from its dichotomy; of being the scarier, the more frightening of the two within the world of the story, and at the same time less scary, as something that exists only within the world of the story. And this worth meant more to me as a younger reader, because it was uncharted territory.

I’m using creepiness as an example here, but that’s just pulled from the week’s reading. As I said, it isn’t just about new narrative strategies; the alternate realities of speculative fiction let you explore ideas and concepts that run parallel to real life. It’s hard to describe the nature of this kind of reading without making it sound like something suspiciously innappropriate, but the fact is that growing up means encountering new experiences, and speculative fiction gives young readers a safe space to encouter and explore them–the first time I remember encountering the idea of euthanasia, for example, was in The Giver.


The Ninth Gate, from Sabriel, by Laura Tolton

172 Hours on the Moon (Book Trailer)


I enjoyed 172 Hours on the Moon, but the fact is that it’s primarily a horror novel and as such has a tendency towards weakness in places that many horror works do—the story set-up requires seriously suspended disbelief and the characterization suffers somewhat in favour of the plot (this is not intended as a slight against horror, but the conventions of the genre do differ from other types of fiction). These are not inexcusable flaws, but they could mean that those who don’t like horror might find the book unsatisfying if they are expecting a sci-fi mystery story—this book’s strength lies primarily in the creepy atmosphere and in the whole general territory of skin-crawling scares. With that in mind, this book talk video was made to mimic horror movie trailers, in order to both hightlight the novel’s main appeal and to ensure that anyone watching will understand what they’re likely to find in the book.
Books based heavily on mysteries rely more on the “you’ll like it, trust me!” realm of recommendations, since they generally have to skirt major pivotal elements. This was the case with 172 Hours on the Moon and was the reason why I basically ended up splicing shots of scared people in science fiction movies together (though they are related shots, of course; hiding in the greenhouse and individuals on the surface without suits both feature in the book, on top of the inevitable discovery of bodies, for instance)—the entire exercise weighted more heavily on representing genre and tone than outlining plot, since much of the plot lies in a reveal you don’t want spoiled.
I had way too much fun making this trailer and I’ve got the rudimentary, hand-drawn, heavily-edited storyboard to prove it, and—more importantly—a lengthy list of rejected ominous taglines (…why did they leave? …what’s been waiting for them? …but something’s been waiting for them, and that’s not even counting those compiled directly from the book cover itself; It’s the opportunity of a lifetime…If they can make it back alive. … who knows what’s really out there? … In the black vacuum of space… no one is coming to save them).
The song in the trailer is the Talking Head’s “(Nothing but) Flowers,” whose lyrics features heavily in the book.
A thorough booktalk ‘information sheet’ on 172 Hours on the Moon (including notes on style, characters, appeal factors, and intended audience) by Sarah Calder is available on her blog, Your Query Has Returned No Results.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: Book challenges, trusting the young, and the reductiveness of “vulgarity”

Being a completely and entirely subjective reaction.

I was already familiar with Sherman Alexie before I started reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. This was primarily from trawling around the North American YA blogosphere where, for obvious reasons, they’re a little defensive of the genre (I am behind them 100% in this regard). So when a click-bait-y article entitled “Darkness Too Visible,” with the unfortunately subheading “Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?” appeared in the Wall Street Journal, it was naturally met with a whole lot of irritation by those who were familiar with YA canon. Sherman Alexie’s reply, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood,” appeared in the same publication and it’s absolutely worth reading, not just as a response, but on its own merits. Alexie ended his piece with a reflection on his own work:

…I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

That’s what I was thinking of when I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I’m lucky in that I don’t need the weapons that Alexie provides with The Absolutely True Diary, but I can see their value clearly. Junior is a individual in seriously rough circumstances and True Diary one of the many narratives that needs and deserves more public visibility. The book is, in a manner, about ‘issues’—racism and white supremacy, poverty, disability, alcoholism, bullying, and many more—but more importantly it’s about resilience and it’s about Junior, who’s a likable character with a warm and darkly funny narrative style and you’re rooting for him all the way. I enjoyed it immensely, but I was troubled by the extent of the challenges it has faced when it’s used in classrooms or available in school libraries, and the incredibly reductive nature of the complaints.


While there are many issues on which I can see the logic of another’s view and while I understand that, on a fundamental level, it’s an impulse to protect children that underlies challenges like these, there are two things that, for me, make our viewpoints ultimately irreconcilable. The first of these is that I don’t really think that these challengers are giving young people enough credit. Obviously material for 18-year-olds won’t be appropriate for 6-year-olds, but kids and teens are pretty good at engaging with complicated texts; and if they aren’t, well, many of the True Diary bans have been happening in classrooms, which really should be the ideal place to develop those skills.

The second is that the definition of ‘obscenity’ is so fundamentally subjective. I’ve seen the word ‘vulgar’ come up over and over again from those that stand in opposition to this book. It’s certainly filled with obscenities—yeah, there’s a lot of cursing—but I can’t really consider that something that is the ultimate definer an obscene work; as a descriptor, it too neatly overrides the rest of The Absolutely True Diary‘s text, with complete disregard for context. The swearing in True Diary, just like the masturbation mentions (there’s no description of a masturbation scene, just a kid’s thoughts about the act—“And if God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate he wouldn’t have given us thumbs. So I thank God for my thumbs.”), are not added for shock value and they aren’t intended to titillate an audience; they’re part of the everyday life of the character and, as much as many would like to deny it, part of the everyday life of many kids.

At the same time, I tend to lean toward the views of Amanda Nelson’s “I Read Violent Trash as a Kid and Turned Out OK,” which I suppose brings it full circle to my first point: what exactly are they worried will happen to kids exposed to curse words and mentions of masturbation? I mean, I suppose it’s either that they’ll be traumatized or corrupted, but I just can’t get behind that reasoning—once again, I don’t think young people are so vulnerable to something like swear words, and complicated or new subjects should be talked about, something unlikely to happen if a culture of suppression and silence surrounds them.

It’s safe to say that the mother who described the books as ‘like 50 Shades of Grey for kids‘ and I will never see eye-to-eye, even if I understand that she wants to protect her son, and that’s fine. But those asking to have the books removed aren’t just trying to protect they’re own children, they’re trying to decide what’s appropriate for all kids. Ultimately there’s nothing I can contribute to this discussion that hasn’t been said many times over by many eloquent people. Sherman Alexie himself puts it best in an interview piece entitled “The Value of Subverting Authority,” when he was asked if there was any “measure of censorship in school that’s appropriate,” and whether there were any books that he would ban, given the chance:

I believe in any kid’s ability to read any book and form their own judgements. It’s the job of a parent to guide his/her child through the reading of every book imaginable. Censorship of any form punishes curiosity… We can all learn from every text. Reading the work that disgusts you can only strengthen your core beliefs. I could teach a semester-long course based only on reading the local telephone book. All stories can be taught in valuable ways.


Incidentally, what I find of particular interest are the reasons that books are reconsidered, removed, or retained in public libraries; the successful challenges of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are overwhelmingly in schoolrooms and school libraries. For those who would like to know more about the kind of challenges that public libraries received, how they consider them, and what actions they take, Toronto Public Library has three years of its Materials Review Committee’s summaries of their ‘Reconsiderations of Materials’ available online: 2009, 2010, and 2011. In 2010, for example, a library user submitted a form requesting that a young adult horror novel called Swans in the Mist by D.E. Athkins be moved to the adult collection, because it contained “sadistic scenes” and “might give teens violent ideas” (The committee ultimately decided to retain the book in the teen collection). The documents are an interesting read.

‘Real Readers,’ ‘Real Books,’ and Missing out on Comics

I’ve read many variations of the charges historically laid against comics, but oh, they never get old. Bill Bryson, in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid—his memoir about growing up in 1950s Iowa—recounts the charges Fredrick Wertham laid against comics in Seduction of the Innocent. According to Wertham they caused moral degradation, “promoted violence, torture, criminality, drug-taking, and rampant masturbation, though,” as Bryson notes, “not presumably at the same time.”


“Wertham saw sex literally in every shadow. He pointed out how in one from of an action comic the shading on a man’s shoulder, when turned at an angle and viewed with an imaginative squint, looked exactly like a woman’s pudenda. (In fact it did. There was no arguing the point.) Wertham also announced what most of us knew in our hearts but were reluctant to concede—that many of the superheroes were not fully men in the red-blooded, girl-kissing sense of the term. Batman and Robin in particular he singled out as ‘a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.’ It was an unanswerable charge. You only have to look at the tights.”


So it doesn’t surprise me to read quotes from librarians in 1940s condemning comics using their own framework of understanding—children who read comics weren’t really reading, and even worse, they were being permanently damaged by this failing and would never really be able to read properly. For all that current librarianship is big on connecting people to the information they need, it’s origins are more prescriptive—for those who came to the library for reading materials, it was about connecting people not with the right book, but with the right kind of book.


The preconceived notions about who reads comics and why have been thoroughly rehashed as the format has become increasingly legitimized in the public eye (as The Onion remarked last year with their rather pointed headline: “Comics Not Just For Kids Anymore, Reports 85,000th Mainstream News Story”), but despite this librarians are still talking about them as if they’re a untested and potentially unsound variable. Lucia Cedeira Serantes, in “Misfits, Loners, Immature Students, and Reluctant Readers: Librarianship in the Construction of Teen Readers of Comics,” looks closely at the language used and attitudes displayed by librarians in relation to comics and teenagers, and a fair bit of it is depressingly old-school; viewing comics as inferior graphic novels and both as inferior to ‘real books,’ and viewing the teenagers who read them as immature, either in terms of literacy level or as readers who hadn’t learned to discern yet, and hoping they’ll move on to ‘real’ reading.


The idea of comic books as a morally corrupting influence on youth fell by the wayside long ago; Wertham’s campaign against comics has long been discredited and Seduction of the Innocent holds on only among those interested in the history of the format, as a kind of cultural artifact; accusations of Batman and Robin as ‘secret homosexuals’ or that Wonder Woman was a lesbian because of her independence are obvious vestiges of a particularly homophobic age. But the attitudes expressed by librarians at the height of the moral panic that resulted in the creation of the Comics Code still hold on today. While the idea that comics are void of morality has been dismissed as a ridiculous moment of national hysteria, the notion that comics are void of literary value has hung on. The mere existence of the term ‘graphic novel’ attests to the fact that comics as a form have plenty of potential for compelling narrative, but continue to be stigmatized; something like Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are ‘literature,’ i.e. definitely not comic books.


01Coveted elementary school library reading materials.


I read comics as a child; my elementary school library was serving a lot of French immersion students and had cottoned on to the Franco-Belgium comics scene in a big way. In a similar stroke of ingenuity, my parents realized that I would be pleased as punch with birthday gifts of Sailor Moon manga no matter what language they were in, and so they made their daughter happy and were assured that she was practising her French in a single stroke.


02Well played, parents, well played.


But then I stopped when I entered junior high, mostly because comics just… disappeared, both my awareness and environs. Presumably because comics were for kids. Or if they weren’t for kids, they were for guys. Anyway, there were plenty of other things to read, I wasn’t lacking.


I started reading comics again when I was half-way through my B.A. in English lit, throwing myself into ‘graphic novels’ and superheroes and new narratives, and I regret that I didn’t have the opportunity to read them when I was a young adult. I love them now, and although I wouldn’t recommend every book that I read now to my young adult self, I have often found myself reading a book and thinking about how much I would have enjoyed comics as an interesting and enjoyable narrative form, and wishing they’d had more visibility at the time.


In terms of fiction, I read standard English Major fare—Austen and the Brontës; Middlemarch and Aurora Leigh, but I also adore the sensationalist literature of the time, some of which is campy and some just truly awful books—Castle of Otranto and The Monk. And a whole mess of contemporary literature that currently seem to all within the nebulous mass of literary fiction that ‘well-read’ people read; and also the classics of genre fiction, mainly sci-fi/fantasy and some detective; and sometimes I read really badly-written books because I liked their hilariously terrible cover.
And comics. Sometimes graphic novels. Or non-fiction.
Or I abandon books for weeks and read reams of articles and online commentary. Or webcomics. Sometimes I forgo reading in favour of re-watching episodes of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer.


The point is, my reading habits are inconsistent: I read things that are popularly considered to be good literature and things that are popularly considered to be garbage, and I gain from all of them. But more importantly, it wouldn’t matter if I tipped the scales in one way or another, because there’s no such thing as a ‘real reader’ and there’s no right way to read. My boyfriend, for instance, has an aversion to the literary fiction which I love and although we share tastes in comic books and genre fiction, I’ve never felt inclined the crack open the kind of military or political history he prefers. Readers; they have different wants and needs. Go figure.


The notion of reading materials as a natural hierarchy, a ladder that you climb in one direction as you read ‘better’ materials—ascending until you’ve outgrown reading all that other garbage and have finally matured enough for the worthy literature and will never look back now—is absurd and narrow-minded. The treatment of comics as a reading material that is worth less than others is the result of buying into this idea, and it means that people are missing out on an entire swath of materials that can engage, inspire, and yes, entertain them. Maybe not everyone, but enough that it’s a small tragedy. Comics have made gains in credibility, but it’s a problem if librarians are still framing comics as a convenient bottom rung to coax young adults onto the ladder so they can move onwards and upward. Sometimes I forget that comics are still so stigmatized: it’s irritating to go home for the holidays and have your leisure reading interrupted in order to be informed that comics are for children. There’s no reason an entire narrative genre should be viewed as something to be grown out of. What a waste.



Comics to love, young-adult appropriate: try the comics or the graphic novels; enjoy the superheroes, fantasy, or realism; mix with ‘real books’ or enjoy exclusively.
Do whatever you want.


(Needless to say this isn’t a comprehensive or even particularly cohesive collection, it’s just a mix of books that I own or have read recently which came to mind when thinking about young adult readers.)

Cinder by Marissa Meyer—science fiction, action, political intrigue, romance, and the teeniest bit of Sailor Moon


(Very, very slight spoilers; no pivotal plot points revealed, just mention of a few details.)
Linh Cinder is a gifted mechanic working in the bustling city of New Beijing, considered a second-class citizen because of her status as a cyborg and living under the guardianship of a woman who detests and exploits her. But when a deadly plague encroaches on the city she’s enlisted for medical testing against her will and so begins a series of events that entangles her life with that of the handsome Prince Kaito, the global diplomatic relations with the dangerous Queen of the Lunar colony, and the fate of the earth itself.


The reliance on the Cinderella narrative is light, stripping much of the plot and keeping the archetypes—the prince, the wicked stepmother, the ball. All the characters are well-developed and Cinder herself is good-natured and refreshingly pragmatic; keeping her head down and working hard to free herself; making wrong decisions for the right reasons and actually learning from her mistakes. She doesn’t end up at the ball by way of deus ex machina and grand romantic gesture, but by her own volition and in a mire of political intrigue. Her antagonistic relationship with her own body is particularly interesting; she hates her robotic pieces and her status as cyborg, but it’s a truly awful moment when her stepmother confiscates her prosthetic foot. The eventual scene in which Cinder arrives at the ball, thanks to an old and previously resented cast-off prosthetic, is a satisfying moment of self-proclamation.


The foreshadowing in Cinder is a little obvious, but the predictability isn’t an unforgivable flaw; the interest is in watching how things play out among the characters and the book is fun enough that knowing the ‘reveals’ doesn’t really put a damper on it. In the nature of series openers, Cinder has a cliffhanger ending, but two of of the remaining three volumes have already been published, each following the fairy-tale theme: Scarlet (red riding hood) and Cress (Rapunzel).


Recommended, for ages 12 and up.

Meyer, Marissa. Cinder. New York: Feiwel & Friends, 2012.

Marissa Meyer’s official website


Kelly Jensen just published “Beyond the Bestsellers: So You’ve Read “The Lunar Chronicles” by Marissa Meyer” over at Book Riot, a list of a few books to try after you’ve finished Cinder and its sequels. I put together another mini-readalike for some different elements of the books that you can check out below the cut.


Goni-Montes-Cinder7Linh Cinder by Goni Montes

click through for mini-readalike