Fuse #8

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Hot Topic Time

Nothing like a zinging literary debate to ward off the chill February months.

You may not have noticed it, but since I posted my disappointment with those children's librarians that refuse to stock The Higher Power of Lucky on their shelves I've had at least two people speaking in defense of the move via my comment section. One, by the name of S., wrote this very interesting point:
I just read the opening couple pages of The Higher Power of Lucky to several groups: a kidlit class at a liberal arts college in middle Ameria, a group of K-4 teachers in middle America, a Creative Writing for Children class in middle America. All were hesitant about giving The Higher Power of Lucky to students.

After reading it several times, it's not just the S-Word, or the anonymous 12-step programs--it's something about the tone that is set up immediately. Those things are generally offensive in Middle America, but it's the combination of them, plus the density of the text at first, that creates the strong impression. If a kid doesn't know what a 12-step anonymous program is (AA is never mentioned) then it's hard to understand what is happening. The phrase "Hard Pan Found Object Wind-Chime Museum and Visitor's Center" is a mouthful, and the rest is sometimes--well, it has a different sort of rhythm and flow. And that results in an cumulative tone that doesn't let a reader in.

I don't think it's just that word. But in Middle America, this book will not play well, from my small sampling. Like it or not, much of America is still conservative, while publishing is largely not conservative. They/we are willing to accept the different, the unusual--but this opening strikes the ear and the reader with too much of a dischordant tone.
We're currently discussing whether or not a person can judge a title via the first three pages or not. The second one had a different take:
Please remember that school libraries and public libraries have different functions, as well as financing. When a school budget is tight (and I've heard of schools that allot $500 a year to their libraries collections, where non-fiction is the priority,) the librarian has to make hard choices. Buying a book he doesn't think his patrons will read and isn't a tied into the school's curriculum becomes necessary. When three of the last five winners (Lucky may or may not join that list,) have very little young reader appeal among the librarian's patrons, not automatically buying the winner may be a valid decision.
This makes a lot of sense when you consider books like Kira-Kira and Criss Cross with their 14-year-old girl bent. So then the focus switches to whether or not Lucky is appropriate for younger ages. Ho ho!

And then, of course, there was that pretty little New York Times article (which may have disappeared by now) covering the Lucky debate. Now THIS particular piece is remarkable primarily because of its ill turns of phrase. I just adored this quote in particular:
If it were any other novel, it probably would have gone unnoticed, unordered and unread. But in the world of children’s books, winning a Newbery is the rough equivalent of being selected as an Oprah’s Book Club title. Libraries and bookstores routinely order two or more copies of each year’s winners, with the books read aloud to children and taught in classrooms.
Oh dear. The Newbery is now the children's equivalent of Oprah's Book Club? I guess in the sense of selling a book instantaneously, but a part of me wishes that there were a nicer adult equivalent.

Loved the end of the article as well.
Ms. Nilsson, reached at Sunnyside Elementary School in Durango, Colo., said she had heard from dozens of librarians who agreed with her stance. “I don’t want to start an issue about censorship,” she said. “But you won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.”

“At least not for children,” she added.
And now we have the first! How lovely. Shall we nitpick the quote and point out that it is not a man's genitalia but a dog's? I don't think it's too much to ask that all the people who discount the book read it through. Then, at the very least, we'd have a better informed debate.

One more question for you as well. If anything, this debate is interesting because it brings up the listserv LM_Net which I've not heard much of before. I belong to the Pub-Yac listserv and child_lit, but what are the advantages of LM_Net? Any subscribers out there?

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At 1:13 AM , Blogger Laini Taylor said...

Hm. I couldn't find The Higher Power of Lucky at a major national book chain a few days ago, and I assumed they were just out of stock. I ASSUME they're not "taking a stand," but who knows. I'm sure I'll be able to find it at Powell's, our fabulous independent. I'm more curious than ever to read it now. I secretly hope to inspire controversy myself some day, though perhaps not about scrotums. Who knows, though? Does any writer really know if their future holds scrotums or not?

At 4:56 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms. Nilsson apparently feels it is her responsibility to encourage otherwise intelligent and thoughtful library professionals to ban books from library shelves based solely on her dimwitted conclusion that a perfectly good word for a part of the male anatomy (i.e., scrotum) is not suitable for children.
This woman represents self appointed, pseudo morality police who haven't got the good sense to keep their feeble and unenlightened opinions to themselves. Ms. Nilsson needs not only to mind her own business, but do the world a favor, and resign her post as librarian in order to save the precious children of Durango from her narrow minded, judgmental, Puritanical and sexually prejudicial point of view. I'm not sure what she has against men, but exposing her inner demons in this manner is not only inappropriate, it is dangerous as well. The woman obviously needs professional help, and I can only hope the parents of Sunnyside Elementary School will view her comments in this matter with grave concern and recognize that child abuse takes many forms. They would be wise to find themselves a new teacher and librarian as soon as possible.

C. Montgomery

At 8:54 AM , Blogger rams said...

Crying out loud, you're from Kalamazoo. Surely that's the gold standard for "Middle America" credentials?

As a former bookseller I can reassure y'all that you can't fine a recent Newberry on your bookstore shelves for weeks after the announcement because they're sold out and reprinting. (We always figured Darth Noble had spies who tipped them off early.)

I will leave the scrotal debate to the more qualified and invested among you, but would like to offer one sharp bark of protest agains knee-jerk Oprah-dissing. Her books may run to the lugubrious, but you can count the bad ones on one hand. She has motivated millions of non-readers back to the page, and to some pretty difficult pages at that. Most of her detractors couldn't name six books she's covered, and her opponents often reflect some facet of our old front-desk guy who sniffed "I just don't think it's good for one woman to have that much power." (Of course he wouldn't dream of watching her book group.) Rupert Murdoch has power. Oprah has influence. Earned influence.

Not saying there's nothing to object to -- but let's watch the knee-jerk ridicule. Harumph.

At 9:31 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wrote the second quote in this entry (and dearly wish I'd proofread it better). I just want to clarify that I don't object to Lucky's appropriateness and have purchased it for my school library. My comments were about the practice of automatically buying the current Newbery winners of the last several years. The lack of young reader appeal in the winners is becoming an issue.

In my school, the students aren't interested in a book based on the award(s) it receives, they care more about the story. The teachers have never selected class reads based on an award, either. Still, I buy the major award-winners as soon as they are announced. Criss Cross and Kira-Kira have each been read a grand total of one time. A Single Shard hasn't been read at all, except by me. I hope Lucky gets more attention, but I have my doubts. My library can afford to buy these books, but if the budget were smaller I don't know that I would buy them based only on their receiving the Newbery Medal.


At 10:04 AM , Blogger Jone said...

I have not been able to find a copy to even read. It is on order. It will be interesting to see how many of my colleagues will put it in the library in my district.

At 10:23 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

I love it when my mother takes me to task in a public forum. Sorry, mom. Honestly, I've nothing but respect for the bookclub. I'm just saying that it's funny that the article had to find SOME cultural touchstone to compare the since-1922 Newbery Awards too and the only thing they could come up with was Oprah's BC. This is less a reflection on the bookclub itself than it is the fact that it is the ONLY commercially similar venue out there. Amusing.

At 12:57 PM , Blogger Jennifer Schultz said...

I wonder if Cedar Grove Elementary, of I Saw Esau fame, has a copy.

At 12:58 PM , Blogger Elzey said...

Not to rain on anyone's parade of here, but I'm going to be so happy when the discussion about Lucky shifts away from the "controversy" and onto whether or not the book is really any good.

Personally, I wasn't that bowled over by it and feel this is all a big whoop over nothing. I guess there really is no such thing as bad publicity if the NYT's list is anything to go by (which is another topic for another day)

At 2:05 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Credibility of the Newbery:

The controversy of the Newbery winner this year brings up the question of the credibility of the award.

The ALA Newbery Committee does a valuable service by taking the time others don't have to sift through the hundreds of books published each year to find those which are "distinguished contributions to children's literature."

But the power/prestige of the award are given by "we, the people" as we read the books and AGREE with the committee. If not for the school librarians and teachers (yes, the gatekeepers to children's literature) then kids would never see or read any of these books.

So, what happens when the committee consistently chooses books that "we, the people" disagree with because the books don't fit the needs of our community, or even conflict with the values of our community?

The librarians are chastised for "banning" books or "censoring." Hmmm. An interesting relationship is revealed: does the committee have an elitist attitude which says their choice must be right? does the local librarian ignore the committee's choice without reading it?

No one has questioned the author's rights to write the text, nor the publisher's rights to publish it. Why are you questioning the librarian's rights to vote on the book by not purchasing it? Should they always walk in lock-step with a committee's decision? Or, should they do their jobs and decide what books to include in their collection?

If the Newbery committee continues to choose books that many feel do not meet the needs of children, then the award will lose it's credibility.

On the other hand, librarians should take heed of the committee's choice and read the book. It might well surprise some. It might well disappoint many. At the least, it should be read and an informed choice should be made.

This isn't just a discussion over one word. In part, it's a discussion of the whole process of giving awards and our expectations of those awards.


At 6:17 PM , Blogger Blue Rose Girls said...

Ha! I blogged about this today without checking your blog for a few days... and here you are blogging about it! I said my 2 cents. I think there's some odd thing going on here in America. On the one hand TV and movies are getting more extreme with the sexual content while some parts of the country are doing the reverse. I watched a PBS special a while ago about a small town that doesn't teach sex ed anymore. Guess what's happening. Lots of pregnancies!

Of course, the sex talk here isn't even the point. Scrotum is a body part that all males have. For god's sake, get over it already! As I'd said before, make all those librarians do some nude model drawings and they'll get the sex zapped right out of them when it comes to considering body parts.


At 6:23 PM , Blogger Blue Rose Girls said...

Oh, and on the Oprah topic, check out The Secret, which is FLYING off the shelves. A woman bought 5 copies the other day at the bookstore and handed them out! What the ??? I think "The Universe" told her to. The book is a load of crap. So in my opinion, Oprah's standards are going DOWN HILL. Comparing the awards to her book club will be insulting soon enough, if it isn't already.


At 6:24 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS- I'd still kill to be on Oprah.


At 12:56 AM , Blogger Camille said...

LM_Net is the listserv for school librarians. I've been a member for at least 9 years. It has been very depressed reading the posts this past week.

I haven't read this book so I have no opinion about its literary quality. I just hate the fog of defensive librarianship that has settled over school libraries these days.

At 2:26 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

For the sake of narrowing the focus of the discussion, the debate over the actual hands-on usefulness of the Newbery award winners is a worthy topic in and of itself. I wouldn't dream of ever questioning a librarian's right to add or not add a book based on their quiet, considered, thoughtful decision over whether or not a title, award winner or no, fits their collection. My concerns, at this time anyway, focuses squarely on the problems associated with those librarians who have NOT read a book, decide on page one what to think of it, and come to snap decisions. They are the primary focus of my concern. Not the good librarians who have taken all sides into account and have come to a measured decision as you, S, have.

Because of the nature of the award, few school or public libraries own all Newbery winners. Perhaps I should write a new post where we can discuss how useful this particular award (to say nothing of the Caldecott) actually is in the grand scheme of things as well.

At 9:01 AM , Blogger Kathy said...

Oh boy, there are SO many things I want to say.

But first, I was a member of LM_Net when I was in grad school, and it helped me TREMENDOUSLY and I stayed a member until it was just too much, with a new job as a media specialist (aka, school librarian) and I unsubscribed, but gee, I think I might have to re-up my subscription!

I left my opinions at my blog, www.librarystew.blogspot.com so I won't waste space here except to say THANKS for the blog and this forum to debate! As school librarians/media specialists we are in the unique position that we are usually the ONLY ONE in the school so we don't have collegues to debate in the lunch room like teachers and public librarians do, so having a forum like this helps (that is also the handy thing about LM_Net also.)

At 12:17 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an interesting discussion.

It just goes to show that what one approves of another doesn't. What one picks, another doesn't. What one loves another hates.

And this is what the business of publishing is all about--subjective opinions about books.

It starts when an editor either loves a book or passes on it and it goes all the way down to whether or not librarians love or hate it and then finally to whether or not kids love it.

It's interesting to watch the flow of a book as it travels these channels.

At 12:59 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to poster "S", it's not just the word Scrotum, it is also 12-Step groups that are offensive to Middle America. Mmm.....does this mean to say that Middle America has no alcoholics, families of alcoholics or children of alcoholics???? Really????

And perhaps if a young person doesn't know what a Twelve-Step program is, then Middle America educators could educate about 12-Step Programs in particular Alateen (A 12-Step Program) which is for young people who have a friend or family member who drinks too much. Unless of course, Middle America has absolutely no need for 12-Step Programs because there are no alcoholics in Middle America.....please! Give me a break!


At 3:41 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this debate will only help the book to find its audience--banned books always sell like hotcakes. So, I say bring it on!

But it's too bad that the debate also hasn't shone a light on the wonderful books chosen as Newbery Honor winners. If you encounter someone who think that the committee was on some sort of campaign to shock America's children, point them to the fantastic Hattie Big Sky, which is as thought-provoking, kid-appealing, and as gentle as they come.

At 8:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dana Nillson, the school librarian quoted in the article, comes off sounding like an idiot. I hope people who read the article don't assume she's typical of school librarians. What an insult to the profession!

At 6:12 PM , Blogger The Buried Editor said...

Despite being a 28 year old female, I have the taste of a 10-14 year old boy when it comes to my reading preferences. It's one of the thing that makes me a some-what decent editor. My tastes have never leaned towards the books that win the Newberry medal. And since I also work in a bookstore, I've gotten to try to persuade kids (and the adults in their lives) to read certain books. As such, I have on (rare) occassions tried to get them to read some Newberry books. And invaribly their eyes glaze, and one child finally told me why. According to him, Newberry books "are boring and suck." Trying not to laugh I got him to explain that they were all depressing.

So, after the kid left, I stood in front of the Newberry bay and looked at the titles. I could see why they might not particularly appeal to kids. They skew to the historical and/or serious subjects (what the kid meant by depressing). I saw a few fantasies, one science fiction, and almost nothing except Whipping Boy and High King had male protagonists. No wonder the boys (and me) hadn't been all that enthused about Newberrys.

Now the Honor books are a different subject, and I like lots of those books. However the medal seems to go to the same type of book year after year.

But I've gotten off track. I meant to comment not on Newberrys but on the decision on the validity of a work after only reading a few pages. After all, as an editor that's what I do all the time. With most manuscripts you can tell by the 15th page whether the style and/or subject matter will work for the press. Many times you can tell sooner. And it's not just editors who make decisions like that. Customes and librarian patrons often read a few pages before choosing what book to bring home. Do I think it's the best way to decide if a book is good? No, but it's better than relying on a cover or jacket copy — something we all routinely use in determining if we want a book.

As for poor Lucky, I only had time to read the first chapter after my store got its shipment in, but scrotum's not withstanding I agree this book almost certainly will prove to have literary merit. But like most boys, I'm just not that interested in reading anymore.

At 9:40 PM , Blogger bookbk said...

I'm with the anonymous commenter just above--it drives me nuts that most (or maybe all, I forget) of the school librarians quoted in the article were, or at least came off as, purse-lipped fearful defenders of censorship, when that's not at all representative of the field. For crying out loud, you work at the Donnell--it would've just taken a local, 7-digit phone call for them to have gotten a nice counter-quote out of you or any of the dozens of school librarians in NYC who I'm sure would staunchly support the book.

About LM_NET--I also subscribed when I was first starting my current school libraian job, and found the list to be a treasure trove of ideas, tips, and suggestions for running a school library program. I also found that a huge chunk of the posters were fuzzy, to say the least, on basic intellectual freedom concepts. Coming fresh out of library school as I did, I was kind of shocked. Not any more. Lots of school librarians come from teaching and have at most a library endorsement awarded after taking a few classes. They might be terrific teachers and dedicated to their schools, but freedom to read doesn't seem to be emphasized in their education or valued by their employers or community.

At 10:59 AM , Anonymous Z said...

"After reading it several times, it's not just the S-Word, or the anonymous 12-step programs--it's something about the tone that is set up immediately. Those things are generally offensive in Middle America, but it's the combination of them, plus the density of the text at first, that creates the strong impression.

If a kid doesn't know what a 12-step anonymous program is (AA is never mentioned) then it's hard to understand what is happening. The phrase "Hard Pan Found Object Wind-Chime Museum and Visitor's Center" is a mouthful, and the rest is sometimes--well, it has a different sort of rhythm and flow. And that results in an cumulative tone that doesn't let a reader in."

Well done, well said! The last three Newberys especially (Kira, Criss, Lucky)....aren't they really young adult books tweaked for the children's market?



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