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.