Monday, April 13, 2009

Race, My Library, and More!

Inspired by the SLJ article by Mitali Perkins, my own review of A la Carte by Tanita Davis, and my experiences at my library that relate to race, I started to tell you about some experiences I've had at my library in a footnote in the last post. It turned out to be a bit long... and warranted it's own post. So, here we go:

The other day I had a gaming program at the library. We had some time to kill before the program started, and I had three boys just hanging out with me, setting stuff up and chatting. All three are multi-cultural, two half black, half white (I've met both parents), the third at least half white (I've met mom), but clearly has something else going on there (1/2 or 1/4 black, I suspect - but do not know). Great boys, I heart them dearly, and I haven't at all talked about race with them. To fill up time, and because they are regulars, I had them make their own Mii's on our shiny new branch Wii. It was FASCINATING to watch them choose the skin color on their avatars. The lightest skinned (and youngest) of them chose the darkest coloring - far darker than he actually is. One paged through all the options and stuck with Caucasian coloring - far lighter than he is. The third (and oldest) seemed pretty unhappy with the Nintendo-offered shades (as well he should have been - they suck) and kept going back and forth between the options.

I'm not raising this to talk about my interpretation of the psychology of their choices (so not qualified for that), or even suggest that there is some interpretation beyond my neophyte observations, but nevertheless, it was truly interesting. I know it's just a video game, but in light of the discussion I had with Mitali & the Seattle-based readergirlz when Mitali was in Seattle and writing the article appearing in this month's SLJ, as well as the study she referenced within it, I can't help but think of the entire event in a different light. Not that it wouldn't have been fascinating without that conversation.

When all the kids showed up for that epic Mario Kart tournament? I was the only white person. Fifteen kids, and not one of them solely Caucasian. Most of those kids? Not readers. "Reading is boring." "I don't read." "Reading is for school." Why is that? I would say, and this is a gross estimation, most, though not all, of the teens who come to my programs don't read. It's like there are two different clans - the kids who come to the library for programs, and the kids who come to the library to get books recommendations from me. Guess where more of the white kids are? And rarely shall the twain meet.

In a completely separate instance of race and teen literature, I was working with Lorie Ann Grover to find compelling teen novels featuring Native American girls. I will never be able to convey in words what an incredibly frustrating experience that was. Readergirlz is committed to featuring non-white heroines. Being in the world I am, and doing what I do, I'm quite aware of how critical the Native American community is of books depicting them. Who wouldn't want their culture to be portrayed accurately? At the same time, it was incredibly disheartening to think I've found a good, compelling book, then research it more, only to find an essay eviscerating it for inaccurate portrayals. How much of that is no different than the standard inaccuracies of historical fiction? Why aren't there more teen books that have the Native American seal of approval? I sincerely hope that those who are most critical of these books are writing their own. Otherwise, I'm not sure how it will get better.

It may have nothing whatsoever to do with reading habits or the relative availability of books featuring kids that look like them, it may simply be how comfortable they are looking to me for advice. I don't know. But either way, the fact that I find a solid, well-written book like Tanita's more remarkable because it features middle class black people, coupled with scarce YA novels accurately portraying Native Americans... Well, whatever the connection there, I'd like to see more books like Tanita's, for all races. I actually hate to think that whether they read or not has anything to do with race. Kyle wants to believe that it's more class than race (and that very well could be true - there aren't that many books featuring poor happy people either in YA lit).

I'm not writing this in an attempt to solve anything, or come up with some pat answer, I'm more interested in sharing and hearing your experiences along this vein. I'm truly interested in what you have to say, so please comment or email me!

(and I'm cool if you also want to suggest more books like Tanita's or, actually, especially, if you have some accurate Native American YA lit)

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A la Carte? I'd like Ice Cream, then, with everything.

Now that I've explained myself, we can get down to business. I like A la Carte, and I have something to say about it, so forget the author and our tenuous claim on friendship, I'm going to freakin' have my say. Finally. So there. *harrumph*

Lainey has been (not-so) secretly in love with her (male) best friend Simeon for, well, ever. Sim's always been the one friend Lainey could always be herself with. They've recently grown apart, or, rather, Sim seems to have grown away from her. Now Sim has come back into her life. But is he there for friendship or something else? Is he needing her, or using her? When he disappears, Lainey's not sure she's ready for the answer, so she hides behind lies and what might just be the real love of her life - the kitchen and her budding talent as a chef.

There are books out there for all of us that speak to our individual souls. In these books, often unexpectedly, we find some plot point, characteristic, phrasing, or some quality that hits us, sparking memory or topic or something else that communicates on a deeper level than the simple words on the page belie. For me, in A la Carte, it is Lainey's attachment to a friendship that is no longer healthy for her, that speaks to me. How does one cut ties to a person who once meant so much? How do you override what your heart wants for what your head knows? How do you sever the hopes for a fantasy when reality gives you every indication that it will never happen. Hope is powerful. It is, in my opinion, the most powerful element in our overcoming hardship. If you can believe in your dreams, they can happen. Hope is also what helps delude us and lead us into less than wise situations. For Lainey, it is ultimately about choosing a dream that might be different from the dream she has a habit of dreaming. If we are able to take stock of the reality, severing it from the old hopes, we might just find that what we really want is a little different. We might even discover ourselves in the process. That's what Lainey does in this book. And THAT is why I recommend this book. And why, when I find it on the shelf in my library, I pull it face front. Not because I want to hug the author. Or, well, not just because.

I'm alarmingly prone to psychobabble these days, aren't I? Jeeze. I so apologize.

What I think is remarkable above all else in this book, is that whilst the main characters are largely minorities, they just happen to be black. The race is interchangeable. She's dealing with the everyday issues and heartache of growing up - something not contingent upon race. Perhaps I am naive (I'd believe it), or, at best, simply unaware of many teen titles that *don't* deal with some sort of race issue when the main character is anything other than white, but I think it's noteworthy and wonderful. Because, you know what? There are teen readers of color, and something tells me they'd like to occasionally read about someone who looks like them AND just has a normal, middle-class, financially stable, stereotype-free life. (On that topic, if you haven't already read the SLJ article by Mitali Perkins, you should. Right now. It's more important, and better written, than this review. No offense, my dear Tanita.). All of this said, I'm a white girl who really doesn't know what I'm talking about.*

And, speaking of surface topics, I think that, while the cover of A la Carte is an unusual choice of art for a teen book, it is beautiful. Frame-and-put-on-my-wall beautiful. Not sure how compelling it is to teens, though. The beauty is continued throughout the book, with the caring details in the recipes sprinkled within. They appear on battered recipe cards, and it's a fantastic choice. All art direction does successfully convey how hungry you'll get reading the book. And, speaking of food, while Lainey is concerned about healthy food and reducing calories and fat in the food she makes, she has a healthy relationship with food and eating. With so many books portraying teens with eating disorders, this pleasant to read.

I am SO looking forward to her WWII novel, Mare's War, out in June. The day before my birthday. *nods* I'm also going to try and leverage my relationship with this author for an interview. What do you think T?

* Ok, this was going to be a long comment about race in my library, but it's turned into a post of itself. Come back later (tomorrow?) for the thoughts.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

More Angst-Ridden Babble

There's something weird about being a book blogger, especially one in the kidlitosphere. There's a weird symbiosis about writing about books and interacting with their creators. Others have oft noted it and bloggers have been accused of being unable, as non-professional reviewers (a whole different beef), to be objective about the task. I think it's bullshit, at least as it pertains to me (the only case I'm qualified to talk about). Because, trust me, I can like you and not think your book is anything special - I'll try to be nice about it, though. But even basing my argument on "trust me" opens me up to valid accusations of self-referential, fact-free, unprofessional writing (cue eye roll).

What does this mean to you, my reader? Well, it means that you may well find from time to time that I'm talking about a book by an author I've somehow become friends with. So how does a blogger review a book written by a friend without appearing biased or unreliable? This is a growing concern for me as I immerse myself deeper into this kidlit world and start creating friendships with the people whose creative work I may well criticize in this space. Most of the time, I've simply chosen to either not read or review books of authors I consider friends. But that's not really fair, either - to me, or them.

For instance, in this very case - I really, truly, like A la Carte, I want it to do well, and I want readers who maybe haven't seen this title to be aware of it - or better yet - pick it up. And not because the author is my friend - but because I liked that book. I've had a hard time with this. It doesn't have anything to do with the book - it's the all about the author. See, Tanita S. Davis? I've never met her, but I would absolutely not hesitate to call her my friend. If I were in Scotland, I'd absolutely stop by and have a cup of tea. Or force them to feed me something more substantial than that (b/c she and her husband have a food blog. A food blog that always makes me hungry.) Or even, if I suck up really well, stay with them. Three years ago, Tanita and I served as nominating panelists during the very first year of the Cybils. During that process received she her contract for A la Carte. We were a tight group. We bonded. I'm still very attached to the members of that group. They are amazing women whom I watch to this day with interest and love (me = total sap). Can I judge the products of Tanita's imagination without bias or predisposition?

Ultimately, it's up to you to decide if you find my content unbiased and of quality. I suspect you will, and that I'm far more likely to lose (and have lost) readers due to my irregular posting. A point I'm not willing to adjust, since I'd rather have a life than be a star blogger (of course, if someone wanted to PAY me, the whole equation is null). If you don't like what I review, the way I review, or how I review, well, I'm not quite sure why you are even still here, so I'm not terribly concerned about that.

Like I've said, I've struggled a great deal with this decision, but ultimately, I've decided that, to over simplify the whole damn thing, it's my blog and I'll blog about what I want to, regardless of who wrote it and how much I like that person. Since really, as we all know, liking a particular book isn't what makes me talk about them here. And *that* more than anything, should tell you whether to give credence to what I say, as I think I've proved with the content of this blog that I can like something just fine, and still have negative things to say, and dislike something and still have good things to say. So, as I said in my last angst-ridden post, I'll speak up when I have something to say. 'Cause I'm not reviewing the author, I'm reviewing the book. I hope you'll stick around.