In which I think about gender of authors and characters…

I spend a lot of time on my blog posts, especially the ones in which I wrestle with complicated ideas like gender.  They take time because I am working hard to express myself clearly, and honestly, and thoughtfully.  They take time because I realize that I don’t necessarily have the opportunity to immediately respond and clarify with a reader, the way I would in a conversation– and so I know that I need to explain myself as fully as possible, because I may only get one shot. They are hard because I think it’s important to sometimes reveal my own foibles, mistakes, and misconceptions, not to glorify or justify them, but to understand how (and hopefully why) an essentially nice person like myself sometimes still makes mistakes.  It seems far easier– and far safer– to examine an issue by calling out someone else’s behavior, rather than admitting my own potential missteps. And yet, I believe that it’s only through honesty that I am better able to examine the how’s and why’s of the way I think and to consider the influences around me.  Through examination will come moments of revelation in which I suddenly understand how I’ve reached certain conclusions.  And if I feel that those conclusions and those influences were incorrect, at that moment I can then begin consciously and actively locating and creating sources of influence that more accurately reflect my core beliefs.

I’ve been trying to follow this process with my examination of gender in libraries by admitting that I’ve sometimes used gender stereotypes (even in a well-meaning way) to bring simplicity to a complicated topic– or even to right a perceived wrong.  I think it’s important for me to admit this– and to examine where those ideas came from, and how I’m changing– because I can’t be the only person with these experiences.  And when I start to understand how I developed these ideas I can try to create alternate behaviors to help me avoid passing these flawed ideas onto others.

One common misconception that I think is important to actively reject is the notion that books can be written for either male or female audiences.  While that may seem silly to state, because it sounds so common sense, my previous blog posts have examined why I think we still need to work on actively rejecting this idea because so much of society still supports it.

This week I’ve been thinking about the topic from the perspective of male and female characters, because I think that many people (subconsciously or not) are still using character gender as a means of determining a book’s intended audience.  I always like to be transparent in where my ideas are coming from– whether they are a library event, a discussion with a colleague, or something I read.  In this case, it’s the latter– an article on Vice in which Hugh Ryan interviewed the author Andrew Smith. http://www.vice.com/read/failure-of-male-societies-869

If you’re active in the young adult lit world you may have heard about this interview, lots of people reacted pretty strongly to it. If you haven’t heard of it, gird yourself before exploring it, the discussions end up taking some pretty unpleasant turns, and much of the furor seems to have centered on Andrew Smith’s response to one of Hugh Ryan’s questions. In reading about the whole event (event= publication of interview and subsequent social media/blog responses) I went back to the original interview and was immediately struck by Hugh Ryan’s questions.  At one point he says to Mr. Smith: “You also don’t seem afraid to explore the sex lives of teen boys—everything from the confusion of being attracted to your gay best friend to the trauma of sexual assault during war.”  (To be honest I’m not sure what the question was, as this seems more of a statement from Mr. Ryan) but Mr. Smith responds: “There are an awful lot of things that people are, for whatever reason, timid to talk about, and sexuality in adolescence is one. Kids ask me about that all the time. Especially boys. They’ll quietly say things like “Wow, you wrote about this. How do you feel about that? How do your kids feel about this stuff?” They’re trying to feel out some kind of an answer, because they’re curious. I think these are natural experiences during adolescence. So I tell them I’m not afraid of words, of talking about anything that I think is real or pertinent.”  So far, so good, right?  Mr. Smith seems to want to validate a range of sexuality for his readers– exactly what we all want, right?

It’s Mr. Ryan’s next question where things get problematic for me.  Here it is: “On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work?”  This question is problematic because, to me, it reverts back to a simple gender binary belief that to enter into a book (by which I assume Mr. Ryan means “engage with” a book) a reader must see someone of their own gender. Mr. Ryan’s question seems to suggest that what enables a female to connect with a character is not whether they share the same beliefs, attitudes, struggles, or experiences, but whether or not they both share the “vagina experience.”

Mr. Ryan’s question spells disaster for any female who ever believes she gained anything from reading William Golding’s chilling Lord of the Flies, a compelling exploration of human brutality which doesn’t happen to feature a single female character. Does my appreciation of that book signal that I’m secretly male?  Or is my appreciation inherently untrustworthy because I can’t truly connect with the male characters, and so I only mistakenly “believe” I understand it?

It would be easy, at this point, to decide that Mr. Ryan’s question is a reflection of a flawed attitude that puts female readers into an incredibly small box.  And that he himself is a sexist jerk for not giving female readers more credit. But as I read the entire article I feel like Mr. Ryan actually believes that the lack of female characters in Andrew Smith’s novels is a problem, and that his question is a misguided attempt “right a wrong” by goading Andrew Smith into writing “more” female characters. Though the question itself seems sexist, I’m willing to give Mr. Ryan the benefit of the doubt that he meant to somehow support women through the question. So where does this belief in a quota fulfillment as equality come from?  I don’t think our conversation starter, Mr. Ryan, is the one who created the idea of a quota solution (or that he is the only one who suggests it as a solution).

Many in the book world do talk about the need for readers to “see themselves” in books. But we don’t always specify what that means– so it can be easy to oversimplify. My sense is that it often translates to “We need more of X” with X being a: gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, setting, etc. And yes, because we do need books that represent the incredibly broad range of experiences that our readers have, we do need those things.  I myself have called (am still calling) for more realistic male protagonists.  But we need these diverse characters, settings, and experiences not just so readers can see books as a reflection of themselves, but also so they can see books which reflect unfamiliar experiences.  All my readers deserve to see realistic male protagonists, so my call for them should not be interpreted as being just for male readers.

While I agree that it’s important for a reader to at least sometimes see themselves in a novel, I don’t think that means they necessarily need to see someone who “looks” like them, or has a life exactly like their own.  There are plenty of times when I have seen “myself” in the struggles or triumphs of a main character who is male. In Melina Marchetta’s (@MMarchetta1) absolutely brilliant exploration of how family members can love and destroy each other simultaneously– Piper’s Son— I connected as much with twenty-something Tom as I did with his 40-something aunt.  I loved Gayle Forman’s (@gayleforman) If I Stay, and I loved the sequel, Where She Went, which focused on the boyfriend’s experience, even more.  I found Adam’s raging despair perfectly captured much of the emotional turmoil I experienced during a high school heartbreak. To me there is something truly powerful when an author is able to help me transcend the categories that society sometimes suggests are insurmountable (like gender) and understand that two people from different categories can share many experiences. To me, this is when the idea of “other” starts to break down, when I see that an “other’s” experience of a phenomenon isn’t really that much different than my own experience of that same event.

And even though we need diversity of character and experience in our novels, I don’t think that means that fulfilling a quota is the answer.  If we understand that sensitive and accurate depictions of characters and experiences are important to helping readers connect, we must be willing to allow authors to focus on crafting the experiences that they feel they can best best illustrate.  Whether these portrayals come from autobiographical experiences, or more traditional research methodologies, an author must be given the freedom to speak to the experiences they feel they can best represent.

Requiring all authors to cover all experiences doesn’t guarantee nuance, and it doesn’t guarantee sensitive coverage of anything. Requiring an author to include character X, or topic X, or setting X doesn’t mean that the author (no matter how much research they do) will feel qualified or comfortable representing X in their book.  And, after all, think of how quick people are to vilify an author who tries and gets it wrong.  Good luck to the author trying to recover from a cultural misstep.

So instead of seemingly suggesting that Andrew Smith needs “more” female characters, perhaps Mr. Ryan should explore what Andrew Smith does with the female characters in his books.  How the female “body count” may be low, but how Mr. Smith makes the female characters important through their actions.  Perhaps Mr. Ryan should ask Andrew Smith to explain why he doesn’t need “more” female characters in order to give his female readers a “way into” the novel because male characters can be that entryway.  And while I reject the notion that all females have an innate shared understanding and appreciation of each other due to the “vagina experience” it would be silly for me to pretend that there aren’t some experiences that are unique to women— childbirth and lower wages than equivalent male counterparts being two easy examples.  Perhaps Mr. Ryan should ask Andrew Smith, who suggests he is actively working to develop a greater understanding of what may be some uniquely female experiences, how he is gathering that knowledge.  After all, we could all benefit from exploring how we can learn to develop empathy and understanding for people with experiences that are different from our own (whether we’ll be writing a novel about them or not).

And when I say, “Mr. Ryan” I really mean all of us.  Perhaps we should all be asking these questions of not only our authors, but ourselves.  How do I attempt to understand some of the experiences my teens may be having that I never had?  The experience of poverty?  The experience of sexual abuse?  The experience of pressure to perform on standardized tests?  The potential pitfalls of living life in public social media forums?  I may not have experienced these things as a teen, but I know they are real now, though that doesn’t always immediately equate to insight.  I need to seek understanding, and seek to add books to my collection which reflect those experiences– and which understand that the lens of these experiences goes far beyond ideas of gender.  And if an author doesn’t feel comfortable with these topics, or many others which aren’t included in this list, we shouldn’t cry foul, that author likely has an equally important set of ideas and experiences to present to us.  Authors must be allowed to focus on the topics and ideas that contain personal meanings, that they feel passionate about examining in their work, and that they can feel proud of creating.  Solely focusing on what an author hasn’t given readers can mean we risk missing an awful lot of what they have.

PS This post made possible by the generosity of @charliehuette who mowed the entire, huge lawn (which was way too tall) while I wrote this afternoon.  Mwah!

In which I hatch a plan involving nudity…

Several years ago I finally fulfilled a lifelong dream and got my basic scuba diving certification.  I don’t live in a place where I can see a whole lot of coral reefs up close and personal, so when a vacation gives me the opportunity I’m always a bundle of excited nerves. Excited because I know I love it.  Nerves because it’s usually 18-24 months between dives for me, so it never all becomes second nature. Getting into the wetsuit often involves lots of awkward contortions and sometimes even having friendly complete strangers on the dive boat tugging at various parts of my rented suit to (please god) get the zipper zipped.  This is shortly followed by putting on more heavy equipment, hoping my mask defogger works, and silently trying to remind myself that I’ve done this before, and that it must be like riding a bike and that once I’m weightless in the water I’ll feel less like a flailing flounder and more like the graceful mermaid I actually am.

And, sure enough, it takes about ten seconds of floating next to the boat, looking down through the clear water to the sand and reefs below, before the nerves are gone and I’m giddy about the prospective of getting to dive down and live in the deep for forty-five minutes. But each time I follow the anchor chain down, I get just a little disappointed. Because although there is lots of sand around, and sometimes seagrass, there aren’t always lots of fish. And my public broadcasting childhood science documentaries have taught me that being underwater equals FISH! And they are not there. Scuba diving– meh. But every single time this happens, just as I start to decide climate change really has destroyed everything, I look away from the sandy bottom, blink my eyes, and suddenly realize I’m surrounded by fish. I call this moment “getting my ocean eyes” and it never fails to blow my mind.  The fish were always there, but I literally couldn’t see them, but when I shift my focus my perception of my surroundings completely changes. I don’t know exactly what triggers ocean eyes, but I suspect that it’s related to the fact that my eyes tend to initially focus on the largest object I see- the sandy bottom– and I have to learn to look at the seemingly “empty” space between myself and the bottom to find what I’m interested in studying. The moment of getting ocean eyes is one of my favorite moments of every dive, and once I have them they last the entire time.  Complete bliss.

Lately it seems that gender issues in the library are my new ocean eyes moment.  I’ve known gender issues are surrounding me, but I’ve been looking past them, or through them.  And now, suddenly– because of a simple local public library program– I’m seeing the issues everywhere around me.  In conversations about tv ads, examinations of book covers, when considering buying new clothes for school and wondering about dressing professionally as a woman (vs as a man). I’m realizing gender expectations color large swaths of our world, becoming part of a crazy chicken-egg cycle in which it’s difficult for me to isolate which came first, the notions of gender identity or the practices that create it.  It means that examining how gender impacts my library is an octopus of a creature– and that writing about it leads me in lots of different directions.  Keeping a succinct focus when the issues are so interwoven has been complicated for me.

Case in point– I’ve been working on a post about cover art.  Here’s a simplified version of my thinking process (since I’m interested in process and transparency). Cover art is often gendered. Example: Heist Society by Ally Carter (@OfficiallyAlly), which is really fun caper story of teens robbing a famous London museum to right a social injustice. Does this cover suggest any of that?

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 2.02.58 PM

Art from http://allycarter.com/books/heist-society/synopsis/

Not to me, it doesn’t.  Nor does it to many of my teens.  Lots of my potential readers reporting thinking this is a “girly romance.” Not a kick-ass action book.  So my initial “solution” to this problem was that when a book like this has a cover that I (or my readers) deem too “gendered” I will just censor it and make a new cover.  Problem solved.  Does it work?  My informal studies show that yes, it does work.  Boys, in particular, are much more likely to check out Heist Society after a book talk when I agree to put an old Hunger Games dust jacket over the existing cover. One, in fact, was back the very next day for the sequel– which also got the Hunger Games dust jacket treatment.  I was thrilled because I had always known this book would work for any reader who loved snappy dialogue, disguises, hijinx, and suspense.

Another book which got a fake dust jacket, for similar reasons, is Beatle Meets Destiny by Gabrielle Williams (@gab_williams)– an absolutely fantastic book featuring alternating narration between two main characters with quirky and yet believable lives.  It has a romance storyline in it, but the two characters are individuals first, and as each tells his/her own story the potential romance becomes very secondary (though still important!). Here’s the romance-heavy American cover.

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 2.16.16 PM

Art from http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=beatle+meets+destiny

A fake cover (simple blue construction paper) boosted the book into our top 20 list of most circulated titles in a single year.  There could obviously be lots of confounding factors– especially student-to-student recommendations after the first few readers liked it– but I can’t help believing that a different cover made a difference too.

These two examples of fake covers seemed to support my hypothesis that cover art changes could change circulation statistics, so it became a more common practice. But returning to that dark secret of gendered librarian thoughts, I must admit that my cover art censorship usually ran along gender lines.  In this case “girly” covers tended to have pinks and reds, swirly fonts, and couples in loving poses. Neutral cover art tended to be abstract.  And “boyish” cover art featured darker colors, action scenes, weaponry, etc. (I’m cringing as I write this because it’s again painful for me to realize how my mental classifications fell into such stereotypes!)

It’s interesting that the majority of times when I censored a cover it was because the cover felt “too feminine.”  Because again, somehow, I had come to believe that while a girl would carry around a masculine looking book without fear, there was no way a boy would carry around a feminine looking book. And, to be honest, part of this comes from student feedback.  Many boys have said, “That looks too girly.”  Or, “That looks like it’s for girls” (see above examples) whereas few girls have said the equivalent to me about a cover like Shipbreaker by Paola Bacigalupi (@paolabacigalupi) or Graceling by Kristin Cashore (@kristincashore) (both of which happen to be perpetual favorites with male and female readers because of the world-building, amazing suspense, and fully-developed characters).

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 9.44.28 PM

http://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/paolo-bacigalupi/ship-breaker/9780316056212/#desc

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 9.46.28 PM

http://kristincashore.blogspot.com/2008/02/my-books.html

So, because I want this blog to be about how I change my own practices, the solution seemed really simple.  Fake covers for gendered covers.  Problem solved.

But here’s the rub– in thinking more about this I’m realizing that even deeming a cover to be too girly perpetuates gender stereotypes.  By saying, “A boy won’t read a book with a couple kissing on it” am I not buying into the party line that boys don’t like romance?  And by buying into that am I not perpetuating it?  So is my very quest for gender neutral covers also totally laced with bias about what would make something have appeal to both genders?  Does defining certain objects as “neutral” validate that other items have appeal to only one gender? I think so, which makes a desire for neutrality a completely backwards– and even harmful– approach.

Now I’m forcing myself to delve deeper into the cover art dilemma.  Because, again, I’ve fallen into the trap of oversimplifying my male readers into a single category– “Males won’t get books with pink, red, swirly, kissing couples on the front.”  Not only does this lump all male readers together, it also suggests that cover art is only problematic for male readers.  Are teen guys really the only people in the world who judge a book by its cover?  No!  Stated like that the idea is absurd! Honestly, no one was checking out Heist Society or Beatle Meets Destiny.  Not only did the cover art not appeal to boys (who I thought would like the book) it also didn’t appeal to girls (who I thought would like the book!)  And yet, in my earlier thinking about the issue of cover art, I’ve admittedly worried much more about appeal to male readers than female readers.  Ugh, what does that say about me?  Do I really view girls as so much more open-minded than boys?  Or is it (more likely) just that I believe society overall is going to give girls more of a free pass for reading a greater variety of books than it gives to boys?  Maybe it seems that way, just because girls often seem willing to check out books with cover art and storylines that aren’t specifically targeted to them.  But that doesn’t mean that girls don’t also at times suffer consequences for reading outside of what is deemed their “gender” norm.  A.S. King (@AS_King) has a good anecdote about what her fellow teens concluded about her based on her reading preferences.  So it’s definitely not just a one-way street of possible ostracism or teasing– both genders can get shit from their peers based on their reading choices.  `

So thinking about cover art appeal just in terms of gender is an oversimplification.  I need to think about cover art beyond gender.

We all know how important cover art can be– heck, it’s even a criteria that some ALA/YALSA book committees consider when evaluating titles (and what criteria are they using?  Oh boy, that’s probably a can of worms!)  The saying “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” doesn’t come from nowhere– it’s born from the idea that appearance is influential during book selection.  Cover art is fraught with many problems beyond the slippery slope of gender. Sometimes the cover doesn’t seem related to the story, or sometimes the depiction of the character on the cover doesn’t match the description in the book, or sometimes the cover art is just dated. Or sometimes a cover is beautiful to one person, and hideous to another. Does me making a fake book cover solve any of these problems?  Not really- there are still bound to be potential readers who are equally likely to reject my fake cover for a different set of personal reasons.

So now I’m thinking that all cover art is potentially flawed.  Replacing one cover (for any reason) with a second cover still doesn’t guarantee broad readership.  So to solve the cover art issue I have a totally radical idea.  No cover art.  Period.

I had a lovely breakfast meeting with my talented librarian friend Kate McNair last week.  (Topics we discussed included the YALSA futures of library report.  For fun.  On our own time.  Because yes, we care about this stuff.  Isn’t it crazy?)  We got to talking about gender issues, and cover art, and I proposed my idea for coverless books.  (Dare I call them “nude” books?  Mah ha ha…)  Kate was initially surprised, but I tried to win her over by reminding her that in the “olden days” books didn’t necessarily always (ever) come with fancy dust jackets.  Like the diamond engagement ring, some of the current cover art frenzy is the brainchild of clever marketing teams who have us all believing that there’s no way a modern teen will pick up a book based on description alone. But is this true?  I mean, lots of libraries have “blind dates with books” type of displays in which the cover art is concealed– as well as the title, author, and book description– and they often report successful circulation (if Pinterest boards are to be believed).

I don’t want my students to have to choose completely blindly, but I am thinking to create a display of my favorites with all cover art and jacket flap copy covered.  Title and author will be listed, as well as a thirty word book teaser– just like I used to have to write for my book award committees.  Since I’m only in my second year at my school my circulation numbers for this year can’t necessarily be compared to last year because our collection has dramatically expanded in the last twelve months, and the number of book talks that I do this year should be increasing as well (fingers crossed).  But I’m planning to run a few circulation statistics before students arrive in mid-August just to get some idea of circulation patterns.  The stats also won’t tell me the gender of the readers, but it’s going to be fun to try and keep some informal records on that during the experiment to look for trends.  My hope is by taking the cover art (and it’s marketing) out of the equation I’ll get more proof that dispels the classification of “boy” and “girl” books that exist either consciously or subconsciously in so many of our minds.

I’m actually really excited about this, it feels like an important step forward in broadening the appeal of so many books!  I’m excited about taking back some ownership of books that I love, returning the focus to the author’s work instead of the illustrator’s brush. It makes me feel like a more active participant in marketing books to my readers.  I’m really curious what other librarians, people in publishing, and authors think about this.  Anyone had any experiences, want to make predictions, or share advice?

PS Many thanks to Kate McNair (@K8McNair) and Kevin Mays for getting me motivated to finish another post!!

Some book love (and committee notes examples)…

A little hiatus from gender discussions… sort of

So I’ve tweeted about my love/hate of twitter.  I’m starting to realize the 140 characters thing is OK, if I use it mostly as a pointer to send followers to a place where I can wax poetic indefinitely. When I sent my first set of Tweets last weekend, four books featuring brothers, I intended to throw up a quick blog post sharing a few more details about each one. And then my rat brain started thinking more about gender. And I started writing all about that (and I’m still thinking about writing all about that). And while doing that I got started thinking about serving on book committees, which to me is old hat. But I’m always surprised how many questions fellow librarians have for me about the process. And my brilliant husband, Charlie @charliehuette, and his high school students (he’s basically a documentary filmmaking teacher) are working on sharing their work and their creative processes online.  They use the hashtag #bt2syw (the class is broadcast technology 2.  The syw= share your work). And Charlie’s been telling me lately that my notes on books for committee discussions is a bit like sharing my thought processes like he and his students are doing.

For today, to bring lots of worlds together, I’m going to post the nomination statements and/or notes that I wrote for several of the books that I mentioned on Saturday.  As a recap, on Best Fiction for Young Adults, when a member reads a book that he or she loves, they can nominate it, meaning all other committee members are expected to read it.  The nominator has the option of writing a statement to accompany the nomination.  Sometimes they are short– mind tend to be long (surprise!!)  They are also anonymous, so when committee members read the statement, and the book, they don’t know who nominated it. (I won’t get into it now, I think I’m working on a committee blog post for someday too– but in short, I think the anonymous nomination system is wonderful.)

For fun, here’s one of my nomination statements for a book featuring brothers that I mentioned in a Sunday tweet. [It’s fun to go back to the archives for this, because this committee has public discussions so I think it’s OK to share my notes now.  And because some of the initial buzz for these books may have grown quiet, and so it gives them a little secondary shot of love!]  Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley (@corey_whaley).  You’ll notice a few places where I’ve got things in brackets, that’s because this is a not quite final draft.  I thought people might like to see an almost final product. One challenge in writing the nomination statement is to avoid giving spoilers, so I often tweaked just how many specific examples to include. Striking a balance between persuasive evidence and leaving discovery for the reader is challenging. Oh yeah, and when we met for discussion at the table I’d have additional notes, and hopefully even some additional arguments, so that what I said there was different than what people had already read from me.  So this is just the first part of the process.  My notes for table discussions would still different from this statement. I’m going to change the font color to try and make my old notes visually different from current blog thoughts.

Summary: (Required, and strict 30-word max is enforced by committee chair)

Cullen’s summer of small-town boredom abruptly ends when the supposed sighting of an extinct bird in the woods puts his town in the national news.  Then, his younger brother disappears.

Full statement (nearly final draft) #syw

This novel is powerful because of Cullen’s honest voice, its stark emotional relationships, and the weaving together of multiple narratives that cover a span of more than five years.  Undeniably a complicated, and at times dry, novel its slow pacing reminds us that most teens lead ordinary lives that aren’t full of extraordinary events.  And, that even when extraordinary events happen, much of life plods onward just as before. Curiously, once Gabriel disappears, the dryness and slow pace become an unexpected method to raise the emotional tension in the novel.

Cullen’s voice is initially arrogant, but readers soon realize that the arrogance compensates for his shy, social ineptitudes.  He becomes a likeable narrator quickly, because as anxious as he is to point out other’s foibles, he’s also honest enough to point out his own [example- maybe when he breaks up with first girl in her living room].  And, although clearly devastated by his brother’s disappearance, [find quote], he also manages to move on with daily activities.  In fact, sometimes whole chapters go by where he rarely seems to think about his brother.  This seeming inattention could make him unsympathetic, because don’t we all like to imagine that life would stop if something happened to one of our loved ones?  But, instead, Cullen’s life mirrors reality. Though Cullen is paralyzed by grief in many ways, he still sees friends, attempts romances, and comforts his family.  In many ways the author takes a challenging path by resisting making Cullen into an unrealistic hero who magically saves his brother.  Instead, Cullen is left with a much more mundane, but ultimately just as challenging task, to learn to live with the uncertainty of Gabriel’s disappearance.

The slow unfolding of the non-Cullen storylines is also interesting.  Though initially confusing, readers quickly anticipate that the non-Cullen chapters will lead someplace important, and the big reveal of the connections is very satisfying.  In fact, many readers will guess the truth of Gabriel’s abduction, and yet will have to wait several agonizing, tense chapters before the details are fully explained.

The emotions in this book are largely self-contained, with little visible hysteria displayed by any characters. Actions, typically, speak louder than words.  [The best friend’s decision to sleep on the floor of Cullen’s room, the mother’s decision to sleep in Gabriel’s room and listen to all his records].  But, when characters do articulate their emotions, they typically are devastating.  A great example is when Gabriel thinks, during his captivity, about how much he loves his best friend.  It’s a simple statement, but it’s simpleness makes it that much more heartfelt and authentic.  It’s also completely consistent with the view of Gabriel that Cullen has given us.  Gabriel’s thoughts, though rarely shared, definitely reinforce his unique character and underscore the bond that the brothers share.

And, just for fun, another book I tweeted about Saturday was Holly Goldberg Sloan’s I’ll be There. (@Hgoldbergsloan) I didn’t nominate that one, so I don’t have an official statement. But I’ve got some notes that I would have used during discussion, so I thought you might like to see them.  You’ll notice they aren’t necessarily complete sentences, but I’ve got examples of what I love about this book. They probably don’t make much sense to a person who hasn’t read the book– but the brilliant fun of being on a book committee is that everyone has read (theoretically) all of the 200+ books! And with only a few minutes to talk about each one there’s less, “Let me defend my points with flowery language” and more “Here’s what good– here’s a quick example that proves it. Bam, vote yes on my book.”

So it may not be obvious from my notes, but I think this is a stunningly beautiful relationship about love in many forms– love between siblings, love between parents and children, love between friends, the absence of love in relationships where there should be love, etc.  It’s heartbreaking.  It’s beautiful. It’s got lots of little interruptions for minor characters who seem fascinating in their own rights. When I re-read this book I fall in love with it all over again. In fact, reading my notes right now, I want nothing more than to curl up with it again this afternoon! (I love the best fiction for young adults notes archives!!  It’s like going through an old family photo album and reminiscing about when you visited the Grand Canyon and how that turkey sandwich by the side of the cliff was the best turkey sandwich you’ve ever had.)

AUTHOR: Sloan

BOOK:  I’ll be There

Loved the surprising moments of character development, like when the dad thinks about Jasper’s reaction to finding out they are adopting Riddle:

“Jared had asked endlessly for a brother.  And now he was getting one.  Tim Bell doubted that Jared ever imagined an older brother, but with Jared you just didn’t know.  That might have been what he meant all along.”  376

Thought Bobby’s whole self-tanning, arm-breaking disaster was hilarious.  But, then quickly kind of sinister the way he assumed Emily would stay at Motel 6 with him.

Loved the relationship between the brothers, and the few brief thoughts we heard from Riddle.  Thinking about Sam after he met Emily

“He comes and he goes now.  But when he’s here he’s far away.  So even when he comes back to me, he’s part gone.

I follow where I can follow where he will let me follow.

Like the ants follow in the line.

Because Sam is the only one who matters.

And if I lose my Sam, there will be nothing for me.”  116

As truck begins climbing mtn access road:

Sam was staring out the window.  Riddle looked over at Sam and his brother’s eyes said what they always said: it would be okay.  Because he would make it okay.”  193

Liked the interludes of other characters as well, like the cleaning woman at the motel with the Christmas pin, the scientists, the penny dealer, even the haircutter.

I also liked that there was never any mention of them kissing except at the soccer field:

Emily smiled…ran across the soccer field straight at the Vision in a Plaid Shirt.  With Haley immobilized, the other players stopped running.  Twenty-one girls now watched, dazed, as the boy/man/god put his arm around Emily’s shoulder, drew her near, and with the old chain-link fence between their two bodies, gave her the sweetest kiss any of them had ever seen.  The next day, despite the fact that Emily was a junior, and despite the fact that she was one of the weaker players, the team voted her captain for the following season.”  107

Strong yes.  Also love the cover art.
So there ya go.  A little more love for some books, and maybe a little window into book committees at the same time.

In which I remember the importance of precision…

One of the quirks of visiting my parents’ house is that there are sketches of plans for building boat docks, designing outdoor concrete stairs, potential modifications to lawnmowers to increase their safety, and more, scattered in unexpected places. My dad, who is one smart cookie, has the incredible ability to look at something which already exists and see within it, and beyond it, to imagine how it might exist in a better form. He doesn’t seem to get stuck on the parameters of how it already exists. And he has an equally amazing talent of conjuring beautiful and practical ideas seemingly from thin air. I love that he’s always thinking, always brainstorming, always seeing the world as full of possibilities for improvement. And I REALLY love that his sketches can be found all over the place– not in an official notebook– but on subscription insert flyers from magazines, in the margins of newspapers, on the back of his checkbook. I’m so envious that he can think this way, and then pick up a pencil and draw what he’s considering. There’s something so immediate about it, that he grabs whatever paper happens to be close, and gets right down to the business of problem solving. I’m not mechanically inclined, I’m not a designer, and I’m certainly not an artist. But these last few days of blundering through the creation of the blog I’ve realized that I have inherited something from my dad. Looking around our house right now there are notes scrawled on the bathroom mirror, revisions of an idea jotted down in purple Sharpie on our gas bill, and even a sentence scrawled on the lid of my laptop. Just like my dad, it turns out that when I’m working on a problem, I like to write down my ideas to capture them, to assess their worth, and to return to them later. What a supremely cool thing to realize I share with my dad.

 

So, back to what all my scrawled, fragmenty, half-thought notes are all about– gender and (my) library practices.

 

So I admitted in my last blog post that there have been times when I’ve thought about a book as a boy book, or a girl book. And I didn’t think I was being sexist. Or harmful. I certainly didn’t mean that said book was ONLY for that gender, simply that I thought it had particular appeal for that gender. Don’t worry, I’m a member of the enlightened now, and my poor, addled rat brain knows it was wrong, and that it isn’t allowed to do that anymore. But I have to admit it, not only to maintain my integrity and the honesty of this conversation, but to understand what I meant by that, and why I thought it was OK.

 

Remember, as you read on, that I’m not defending myself here.  I’m just trying to understand what led me to believe that these types of secret thoughts were OK. And I think there are some forces which contributed to this way of thinking, and I think it’s important to acknowledge what they are (or might?) be.

 

First of all, what did I mean by “boy” book? Well, to understand that it’s probably easier to examine what I meant by “girl” book. I think we all know what that is– speaking in totally oversimplified terms, of course.  It’s a book featuring a largely female cast of characters who are focused on the romantic aspects of their lives. It often has a happily-ever-after ending. And lots of times as a character’s romantic entanglements improve, so do other aspects of her life. It may be realistic, or it may involve sparkly vampires, or it may involve solving a mystery. But a lot of the book’s conflict really involves solving the mystery of L-O-V-E. So that’s a basic “girl” book.  In fact, I think the use of the term “chic lit” to describe such a book is proof that these books are widely considered, and accepted, as having a gendered appeal. And boy books are not those books.  And the weird thing is that while I’m never surprised when a girl wants a non-romance (AKA boy book) I am surprised when a boy wants a “girl” book. I’m not sure why the crossover acceptability formula only goes one way. (Did I just coin a new phrase?) An analogy seems to me to be clothing.  Once upon a time, in the bad old days, pants were for men, and skirts were for women. Then luckily things changed, and it became acceptable for women to wear “men’s” pants. But it never became acceptable for men to wear women’s skirts. Weird. And so our society still largely maintains that items of clothing have a gender, and that’s perfectly acceptable. So isn’t it pretty easy for people to believe that it’s acceptable for other items to have genders as well?  Cars?  Colors? Professions…. Books?

 

Am I the only jerky librarian in the world who has thought this way about books?  I’m going to say that the answer is no.  Today’s bit of evidence: ALA book committees. Which requires a (not so) brief explanation of my experiences serving on various committees. Disclaimer: these are my experiences, they are by no means gospel, my talented fellow committee members may have entirely different takes on their experiences!

 

On some book committees the discussion about nominated titles is private. I think this has several benefits. It keeps authors whose books were considered but ultimately not selected from having their hopes raised and dashed and from having hurt feelings or feeling inferior (I don’t know if they’d feel that way, really, they probably have thick skins.  But let’s face it, if it happened to me I might be sad.) It also allows the committee to have super critical conversations about the books, and to discuss quibbles with the construction of even the books that win. It’s nice to keep things like this private because the committee members have to be REALLY HARD on books in order to select so few from such a large publication field. But the committee isn’t designed to point out flaws in books, it is designed to celebrate their strengths.  So when the battle is over, the poor destroyed book’s wounds have been stitched up, and the committee members’ blood pressures are back to normal, the announcement of the winner becomes a celebration of the author’s achievements, not a list of potential issues that even the most wonderful book might raise for some readers.

 

But other book award committees have open discussion when members of the public can watch the debate happening. These discussions are often quite different from private committee discussions– at least for me. For me, during open discussions, I am acutely aware of the fact that authors and publishers may be sitting in the audience listening to the discussion. That doesn’t mean I’m going to offer false praise for a book, that’s not helpful. And I assume they are there because they want honest feedback. But I am more likely (or at least I try) to make my critical comments precise and free of hyperbole.  I get really annoyed when a committee member says something like, “Of all the books we had to read this year, this is the one that I could barely force myself to read because it was so boring.” Or, “I had to throw this book across the room” (and not because they were so sad when it was over.) Those types of comments just don’t feel very nice to me. I’d rather say something more measured, like, “The pacing was off for me. Some of the long descriptive passages of the setting slowed the plot down too much for me [insert example from pg #…] and distracted from the conflict.” To me I’m saying the same thing as the angry sounding comment, but I’m also offering anyone listening in the audience a specific example of what I mean. I’m also providing specific info for my committee members so they can formulate counter-arguments if they’d like.  [If you haven’t ever attended one of these discussions, they are pretty amazing. But probably more fun if you’ve read the books being discussed. The committee discussion agenda, with times, is usually available so you can plan to pop in and observe specific titles if you’d like. And it will be a big boost to committee members who devote a lot of time from their lives to do this, and who would love to feel like people are interested in the process.  Bonus- audience members can also offer their own opinions for up to two minutes!]

 

And after several long days of incredibly emotionally draining and intellectually exhausting (but SO rewarding) conversation, members vote on whether or not each book should make the final list. Different committees have different rules of how many yes votes a book needs to make the final list. Theoretically it is each book for itself, with no consideration for the content of the final list, as a whole. By that I mean, there are no genre quotas.  If it’s a year when fantasy romance is a big part of the publishing industry, there could theoretically be nothing but fantasy romance on the list if there were lots of really great ones published. I like this system, and I think it makes the list reflect the publishing trends of the year, while recognizing the very best regardless of genre.

 

But here’s the thing. Committee members read upwards of 75,000 pages a year (yes, not a typo, seventy-five-THOUSAND-pages). And they sometimes get to talk about a book “at the table” for only 4 minutes– total. For fifteen committee members. That’s 16 seconds per person, if it was divided equally.  If you are reading my blog you can imagine that I’m just getting started at the 16-second mark. So the dirty little secret (but it’s kind of fun too) is that my best committee experiences have come from a set of talented librarians who, like me, need way more time to rave about what they love, or express concerns about what they don’t love as much. We want to talk, and debate, and swear (at least I do), and be incredibly passionate about the weighty responsibility of creating a list that many librarians will use as an important part of their collection development. These conversations are some of the most fun, ever. They’re addictive. They keep me coming back to committee work even when I don’t really have the money to spend going to conferences twice a year. And there are times when these discussions lead to questions of whether or not the final list should be “balanced.” Which means a lot of different things– books from different genres, reading levels, age appeal. But it can also mean “balanced by gender.” I’ve heard committee members, who are smart, and want nothing more than to create legions of readers, worry that there aren’t enough “boy” books. And I’ve certainly had people complain to me (do I just have one of those faces, or what?) that “my” Best Fiction for Young Adults list lacked enough “boy” books.

 

A benefit of being on a committee is that publishers send books to your house. One year I got nearly 1000 titles– basically like having a birthday box of books almost every single day for a year. Librarian heaven. It makes for a crazy mess of an office, and committee members reach their creative apexes in designing systems that make it possible to locate a particular title in a storage space that offers none of the conveniences of a modern library.  Namely, never enough shelf space, no spine labels, and books which don’t always even fit in a single room.  My particular system involved rough genre classification. This was when fantasy romance was really taking off. And by the end of the year the section of my office which contained fantasy romance was huge!!!! By comparison, the portion of my office which was devoted to realistic fiction featuring a male narrator was tiny. This always bothered me– and it matched the concerns being shared by the teen readers on the “get guys to read” YALSA panel– guys want to see themselves as characters in books.  And my office, a microcosm of what publishers wanted me to consider for a best books list, contained a comparatively low number of these books. So, in my head, these became the “boy books.”

 

So this is where I finally get to my point about the importance of being precise with language. I never for a second thought that these books would only appeal to boys, or that every single boy would like all of these books no matter what. But instead of worrying that the publishing industry wasn’t sending me enough books for “readers looking for realistic fiction that features a male perspective” I just way oversimplified it (without even thinking, really. Because laziness can be dangerous). And then, when I heard my super-smart friends, or super-smart colleagues, or perfect strangers who seemed nice, referencing “boy books” or lamenting the lack of “boy books” I just automatically assumed they meant what I meant, and we were all using shorthand.  I felt comfortable having the conversation, because I felt my concerns, that an entire category of book was too small, and thereby a reader population was underserved, were being validated and that the conversations were an attempt to problem-solve. But what they might have been doing, instead, was inadvertently moving the conversation away from what a very specific set of readers might have been seeking. Instead of defining the problem in terms of books being published, “Man, I don’t feel like enough books are being published that feature male narrators or a male perspective in realistic situations***” I defined the problem in terms of a super generic, reader population.  Because I had heard from panelists that guys want to “see themselves” and because I’d heard specific students making similar sorts of requests. What my concern failed to do was to recognize that yes, these books are important for students who are looking to “see themselves” but they are equally important for any reader of any genre who want to see a realistic guy in a book.

 

People always think that because I’m such a prolific reader I must want to become an author of fiction. I don’t. Among other reasons I spend so much time admiring the craft of authors I love that I am too intimidated to believe I would ever be able to match their ability to paint with words. Doing so requires precision. Not all synonyms have the exact same shades of meaning– and that’s why picking just the right one is so important. By allowing myself to think and speak in a lazy shorthand (boy books), I fell prey to potentially having conversations with people in which I intended to express one idea, but may have expressed something entirely different.  So here’s my vow, to become more precise. Instead of using sloppy shorthand I’m going to attempt to think and say what I really mean. Here’s my first start. Instead of lamenting the lack of boy books I’m going to say what I mean, “I wish I would see more books being published that feature male narrators, or a male perspective, in realistic situations.  I think lots of readers (NOT JUST GUYS!!!) would like to see more of these.”

I’m personally adding the ***realistic situations*** clarifier because I feel like male perspective is more found more in fantasy and scifi books, which is great, obviously.  Not to say we couldn’t use more, but my book shelving experience made me most aware of the seeming lack of male perspective in realistic books. And I have lots of readers– myself included– who are always hunting for realistic books with male perspectives as well.  (Feel free to argue though, this could be a misperception on my part too! And isn’t this blog all about me becoming more sensitive and self-aware?)

And that’s it.  For today. Anyone else have suggestions on other ways we might modify the way we talk about gender in the library? And/or how we can help others talk about it as well?  Danika Ellis has a great blog post in which she writes about how it’s not just teachers, publishers, and librarians that see books as having genders. The book buying public does as well.  http://bookriot.com/2015/04/16/feminist-kids-section-bookstore/

I’m already off topic, but had to offer my thanks…

My heart is overflowing with appreciation for all the love and conversation that’s been thrown my way the last few days. I’m meeting people virtually, I’m starting to understand how Twitter is a professional tool as well as a place for funny cat photos (I’m got one of my darling Lil’ Bud in reserve for the perfect book tie-in— someday), I’m starting to understand how to use 140 characters to connect to places with larger character counts for greater conversation, and I’m being awed and humbled by the diversity of participants (hello– wonderfully engaged high school freshman Savannah Sullivan @Kingsinbackrow– who weighed in via Twitter!  And seems to love the TV show Orphan Black as much as I do!) I’m new to Twitter so I’m not very adept at feeds, conversations, and Twitter etiquette yet, but I’m a motivated learner.  I’m trying to respond to lots of people, but my sincerest apologies if I’m missed giving you a reply.  I’m working on it!

I write reviews for Kirkus, another experience I’m humbled to be allowed to have, and man, is it ever hard. That may be a post in itself for another day. But for now, writing a review is sometimes so hard for me that my husband has suggested I should quit doing it. Which instantly stops my tears and makes me exclaim, “Why would I stop doing this? Having to do this really hard thing makes me smarter because it makes me work hard to be honest, kind, succinct, and the high stakes are scary but when I do it well I feel like I’ve really accomplished something.”

There’s a reward for doing hard things, but there are also lots of rewards for doing easy things– like the rewards of eating popcorn and enjoying Norman Reedus showing more and more heart in his character of Daryl on The Walking Dead. So it isn’t always easy to choose the hard things. I’ve been sort of thinking for years about gender issues in the library, and sort of vaguely considering that there’s a germ of an idea here someplace that needs to be explored, but articulating and discussing sensitive issues is hard. And reading funny and true books like Road Rash by Mark Huntley Parsons–@MarkHParsons– is so much easier.  So much safer than throwing ideas out to the world. But right now I’m so thankful that a casual comment at a library event has forced me to sit down and start really thinking hard, about myself, and the professional world I live in, and the social world I live in, about where my ideas come from, and what behaviors those ideas lead to, and what ideas those behaviors might plant in the minds of people who share these worlds with me.

I happened to be up at school today and had some of these worlds collide as a fellow educator and I started talking about incorporating modern texts into the English curriculum, about what it means to encourage people to become readers, and yes– I didn’t even force it, pinky swear– some of these gender issues came up. And I knew exactly what this person meant when they referenced books by gender, and in the past I might not have questioned the terminology. But today I did, and it’s because you’ve all got me thinking. And my friend and I had a great, powerful discussion too, and so I want you all to know that your comments to me are so appreciated, and by simply joining me in the conversation the ideas you are sharing with me are already being carried to new audiences, and making lives better.

It may sound like hyperbole, but I don’t think it is. What authors, librarians, publishers, and people in the world who talk about books do is important.  And the way we do it matters.

This was intended to be a blog post on alternative phrases for “boy” or “girl” books, but I couldn’t help but share my appreciation for all of you first.  Look for another “official” post on gender in the library tomorrow. The ideas and topics I want to discuss with all of you are exploding from me in a geyser of joy.
PS So my first blog post mentions how I sometimes feel like contacting authors is violating their privacy, or intruding on their writerly solitude, or annoying them because they feel like they have to respond to crazed fans (me!) But now I’m thinking that if an author is on Twitter I hope he or she is inviting conversation. So when I mention an author (or anyone with a Twitter account) in a blog I’m going to let them know via Twitter. Because it means I’m a fan, and I hope it makes them happy to know that what they are doing is important to someone.  Hope that’s OK and doesn’t make some of you crazy with too many Tweets from me!

In which I consider my own gendered library practices…

Yesterday’s blog post explained the lead-up to the incident in which an audience member at an author event told me that I had been an inappropriate choice to interview author Andrew Smith because of my gender.  Yes, this happened for real. From a stranger. Whom I had a very brief interaction with because I would imagine when my immediate, fearsomely curt responses offered a clear difference of opinion he probably didn’t have a lot of desire to prolong the conversation. We parted without exchanging fisticuffs, but also without “hugging it out.”

By the time my husband and I (who’d had an even longer interaction with this guy before I stumbled into the conversation) made it to the car my confusion was clearing and quickly being replaced with righteous indignation. I began re-enacting the parts of the conversation that I could recall, in an attempt to clarify what I believed had just happened.  Charlie confirmed that yes, Mr. Audience had indeed offered commentary that could be summed up as “males writing for males should be read and interviewed by males.” Oh boy.  Like a lot of the world, I had immediate gut reactions to this. And yes, Mr. Audience did at one point suggest that only males should be allowed to read Mr. Smith’s work.  My face must have been priceless. To be fair, he may have backed away from this assertion a bit later in the conversation, I’m not entirely sure. It all gets a bit muddled.

I’m reaching the point now of deciding that the particulars of our conversation aren’t really as important as just the fact that he felt comfortable suggesting, out loud, in public, that an author’s work can only be properly appreciated by members of the same gender. And yes, this is so patently, ridiculously offensive that’s it’s easy to dismiss the whole interaction entirely.  But here’s the thing, I don’t think he believed his statements were inflammatory, insensitive, or inappropriate. Honestly, there were multiple points at which he expressed a passionate concern about the fact that too few teen males, in his opinion, are readers. So, let’s shift our attention away from some of the inflammatory nature of Mr. Audience’s remarks, and zero in on what may be the more sympathetic part of his thought process– his apparently genuine concern about a perceived dearth of teen male readers. It’s after making this shift that my examination of Mr. Audience and his motivations becomes surreal, because I too have found myself worrying that too few male teens are use reading as a tool- for entertainment, information, or a delightful combination of both.

So let’s shift our lens of scrutiny to me.  I fear it won’t always be a soft, forgiving, instagram filter sort of lens, either. This is where writing this post gets intimidating. This is where I start to wonder and worry whether my good intentions, and my concerns, haven’t perhaps accidentally taken me closer to a path of conveniently (and unfairly) lumping all male readers together.  Probably more than I meant them to, and what might be the consequences of such a lumping? I am confident that no one would EVER be able to find me jumping to the same sort of unpleasant conclusions Mr. Audience reached, and in fact I’m also quite sure that given the opportunity I will always expressly reject the negative stereotypes I associate with his ideas. But I also have to ask, as long as I’m being honest, whether or not some of my own well-meaning ways of thinking about gendered reading in the library haven’t been accidentally perpetuating some of the very stereotypes that I hope to destroy. Do I secretly, in my little rat brain, occasionally think of a book as a “boy” or “girl” book?  Does some weird idea about gender balance impact that books I select for class booktalks? Or book displays? Am I trying to appeal to some imagined male reluctant reader– obviously with the aim of luring him like a rare bird to the library– falling into stereotypical ideas about what this male reader “likes” or “needs” and therefore providing him with just more of the same old stereotypical choices? How much of what I do to meet this particular imagined patron’s needs might be reinforcing his feelings of otherness? This is where I start to wonder about where I might be getting these ideas of these male reluctant readers, who else might accidentally be operating under the same sorts of ideas, and whether or not a conscious, radical shift in thinking is required (on my part at least) when considering gender in the library.

Whew, let’s pause for a second. Maybe I need a brief break before plunging the rest of the way into the icy waters, because yes, I fear I’m only ankle-deep right now.  Introspection isn’t always easy, and realizing that I may inadvertently be contributing to a problem isn’t fun. Let’s move forward with me under the microscope trying to remind ourselves that my intentions are always good.

So yes, I’ve worried about “male teen readers.” And no, deep breath, I didn’t always assign a whole lot of nuance to the group. It seems to often vaguely consist of the teen boys that I see in the hallways, in my classroom, in my library angry about being forced to check out a book.  They include the teen boys that I hear teachers lamenting about because they “won’t” read. The teen sons I hear parents sighing over because the sons “refuse” to read. From books aimed at school librarians to help us develop our collections for “these” sorts of readers. My school experiences give me a lot of feedback that “teen boys” don’t read, so it’s easy to see why I might believe that.

Except I have B–, and E–, and T–, all boys with radically different reading interests who devour books.  Boys who read so much I know their student ID numbers by heart because I type them into the circulation system so often. Boys like C–, who come and demand the sequel to Enclave because, it turns out, he read it and he liked it. Who show up to the library angry when a character dies and determined to talk about it right then. Boys who admit to crying in Perks of Being a Wallflower. Boys who care about whether or not Katniss ends up with Gale or Peeta. Boys who couldn’t give a shit about Gale and Peeta and just want to know how the violent Hunger Games will end. Boys who open up and display an incredible depth of uniqueness during my readers’ advisory moments with them. In short, I have male readers who demonstrate all the EXACT SAME reactions to books that my female readers do. Yet, to be brutally honest, while I worry about members of this vague, homogenous “non reading male teens” group, rarely do I express the same concern about an equivalent “female” group of non-readers.

Is this because my experiences with female students demonstrate that there are no reluctant female readers?  Far from it.  In fact, my observations lead me to conclude that many teen girls in my school are just as unlikely to read anything (class novel or assigned independent “free” reading novel) as their male counterparts. So it isn’t as if I haven’t noticed that girls aren’t always readers either.  But somehow, even though I worry about a class of “reluctant teen readers” in my mind there has always also been a subcategory of “male reluctant reader” which lacks a female equivalent.  Ugh.  Why do only the guys get lumped together into this strange amorphous mass? Am I an insensitive jerk?  Maybe unintentionally. But listening to the conversations of the teachers, parents, and probably even the students around me, reveals that I’m not alone in my sins. Are we educators perpetuating this idea to ourselves? It’s possible that we can excuse those people who unfortunately don’t have personal experiences that contradict the stereotypical chatter. But I do have experiences which should force me to reject one-sized-fits-all mentalities!!!  So why did it take this strangely unpleasant interaction at an author event to make me start to think hard and recognize that I haven’t been completely immune to falling victim to what seems to be (at least at times) a grossly oversimplified mass think? [Sidenote: At about this point in my worried insomnia I finally gave up all premise of trying to sleep and got out of bed to continue trying to muddle my way through this quagmire. My husband found notes scrawled on the bathroom mirror this morning from when I was brushing my teeth very early in the morning before returning to bed. Please keep your comparisons to A Beautiful Mind to yourself!]

So now I’m wondering if there aren’t more places giving me messages that are powerful enough to override my own personal experiences which negate the generic male teen non-reader stereotype.  I’m starting to wonder if some of the well-intentioned members of the library and publishing community aren’t accidentally falling victim to the same sort of mass hysteria that indicates that male non-readers are more of a serious problem than female non-readers. And that, as such, they require a special sort of intervention.  I attended a very moving panel discussion at the ALA/YALSA Young Adult Literature Symposium in St. Louis a few years ago on the subject of reaching male teens. The authors (who happened to include Andrew Smith) and an absolutely incredibly articulate panel of male teens, spoke passionately and eloquently about how they came to embrace reading, its influence on their lives, and why they believe it’s so important. It made me cry like a baby in the audience. They spoke of the importance of choice, of seeing themselves in books, and of feeling valued as readers by their teachers and librarians.  Hallelujah!  But these principles actually apply to ALL readers– not just guys.  Now that I’m really thinking about it I’m wondering why I (and seemingly the audience around me) were so willing to accept these ideas as appropriate for “guys.” By singling out males, and putting them in a petri dish, without an equivalent program on an equally vague group of reluctant female readers, or reluctant twelve-year-old readers, or reluctant LGBTQ readers, are we in the library and publishing world– well intentioned or not– perpetuating the idea that these males are somehow “other”? [And might they be made even more generic because it makes it easier for us to think about them, address them, and design interventions for them that way?]

And if these programs, and publications focusing on this rather generic population of male teen non-readers, combined with educational assumptions that are inclined to reinforce some of these ideas, can convince me to ignore the nuances and potential pitfalls of this type of thinking, couldn’t they easily be doing the same thing to Mr. Audience?  Yes, his ultimate conclusions were disturbingly flawed, but is it possible he is trying to solve the same oversimplified problem we’ve served up to him (and ourselves)? Have we accidentally made these male teens into a group who seem to require a special sort of handling– and by turn suggested they are somehow inherently different from their female counterparts? Have we unwittingly taught Mr. Audience to think of books in terms of a binary appeal such that when something appeals to him, as a male, it’s difficult for him to entertain the notion that the appeal can also reach beyond the male gender? And, by extension, when we embrace terms like “chic lit” are we also suggesting that an entire class of books is written expressly for a shockingly homogenous female audience and that no self-respecting male would ever (or should ever) read such titles? Are we creating the monster that somehow turns into greater gender stereotypes?

I’ve reached no conclusions.  I’m honestly not serving out dishes of recrimination. I’m asking the questions, I’m wondering what people think. It’s easy to go astray, or to become unconsciously unbalanced.  While I’m unequivocally rejecting all of Mr. Audience’s conclusions, I’m also worried some of our practices may have inadvertently helped him reach those conclusions. Working alone in a school library can sometimes be an isolating experience.  I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.
I’ve got some additional scattered ideas on this topic, which I’m obviously still trying to wrap my mind around right now.  I hope I’m making the right decision to invite discussion on the topic. I may post again soon on possible gender inequalities I see in young adult publications, gender and marketing (book covers!) what it means when we classify something as a “boy” book or “chic lit”– even when we only do it in our minds!  As always, conversation welcomed, thanks for reading!

In which I become a blogger because of Andrew Smith?

Be forewarned: I’m a fan of the seemingly unconnected introduction.

For most of my life, though I’ve always been an avid reader, authors have remained largely invisible to me. It was characters I fell in love with, bits of their snappy dialogue that my introverted self envied, their commitments to their own quirkiness that I admired, and their determination to solve mysteries and right the wrongs of the world that I hoped to emulate. And while I never came close to believing the characters were actually real, I also preferred to gently look away from the truth that they were just figments of a creator’s imagination. Putting authors into a box (luxuriously satin-lined and completely comfortable, I assure you) in the closet was easy in the pre-internet days when real live authors had little opportunity to interact with me.  My English teachers unwittingly reinforced the idea of authors as fragmented figures of fantasy by stressing that Shakespeare’s most notable qualities involved combining a passion for language with an interest in precise math.  I mean, who wants to spend time counting syllables, really? Answer: no one real.

Because old habits die hard, even after many analytical essays of author’s purpose in my English major days, authors still seemed remote.  More real, but still remote. There was certainly no way for me to know what one was having for breakfast, or to see that another liked to let her cats drink from her own water glass. And then– the magic of the internet. Suddenly my favorite characters had creators who were EVERYWHERE! And I could send them messages, photos, friend requests, invitations to my birthday parties!

Luckily for them by this point I had developed an understanding that these authors are big important people who aren’t interested in my breakfast, my cats, my good and bad days, my birthday parties. Like celebrities, I believed they deserved privacy (I actually still do!). So no author would get pushy fan mail or messages from me. My dignity helped them preserve theirs.

And then I began serving on book award committees for the American Library Association (ALA). And suddenly I got to meet the authors of the books that I adored. I got to sit next to them at dinner and trade dog photos, I got to tell them about how my students love their books, and I got to share with them how important their work is to me.  I once even cried on Jonathan Maberry at a Tor dinner (an event which so embarrassed me that I was never able to take him up on his surely sympathy-please-stop-crying offer to Skype with my students).  [Oh man, blog post one and I’m already over-sharing my closet skeletons. Wow.]

And suddenly I became a tried-and-true AUTHOR fan. Oh, I still love my characters (Eleanor and Park, Cade Hernandez, please stand up) but now I love their creators too, for their ability to use their imaginations to form characters who speak to me so deeply about the human experience. Now I get it. Rainbow Rowell, Andrew Smith, and the rest of the many authors that I love are, somehow, magically speaking to me through their characters. Loving the characters means loving the authors.

In a perfect world, right? But sadly, many of us have experienced times when we’ve met a person we admired (famous author or not) and the person has been a dud. Maybe a jerk, maybe just tired and having a bad day, maybe super arrogant, or maybe just not the best at whatever type of social situation they’ve been thrust into by an event organizer. But in short, they somehow aren’t as magical as you hoped they’d be.

So now that I’m not on an American Library Association book award committee I’m allowed to say whatever I want about any author that I want.  I don’t have to be impartial because I’m no longer officially judging anything! (Which is relief in many ways, it’s not always fun being hard on books). So I can tell you that one author whose work I greatly admire is Andrew Smith. Because his characters are so big, so bold, and so perfect because of their many flaws. Because he tackles issues of sexuality, compassion, war, and education that I’m invested in due to my personality and my profession. Because, in short, he just seems like a badass.

So when I was asked, with my friend Terri Snethen– a fellow librarian and reader extraordinaire, to interview Andrew Smith for a forty-five minute program at our local public library I was pretty terrified. Not because I couldn’t think of questions for him– my new dream is to get to have an evening of drinks and conversations with each of my favorite authors– but because I didn’t want to cry and scare him like I did Jonathan Maberry (miss that part of the story?  see early paragraphs of this blog to experience my true-life horrors!) or be a crazy fan who only asked him super easy questions like, “Do you want to ditch this library event and go get drinks with me and converse about books and ideas?” (Easy because the answer would be an immediate, terrified, “NO!”– making the rest of the interview super awkward.)

But luckily for me I can sometimes keep my “enthusiasm” in check, and Andrew Smith survived the author event never knowing how close he was sitting to an emotional meltdown of admiration. My husband in the audience, having listened to my shameful moans about aforementioned Jonathan Maberry tears, must have been on pins and needles the whole time. He and Andrew Smith are really the ones who deserve to have sympathy drinks together.

And so after the interview ends I’m feeling all proud that maybe Andrew Smith didn’t hate all my questions, and has no idea that in reality I’m a starstruck wordless wonder, and I’m basking in the glory of the thought that I’m going to get to expand my future book talks of all Andrew Smith books to include what a great guy he is.  No fan disappointment here- he’s great, articulate, kind, compliments his teen audience, everything you’d want your favorite author to be. I’m thinking how this story is going to help my students make the leap to author appreciation YEARS earlier than I did. Suddenly my musings are interrupted by a guy from the audience telling me, to my face, that I shouldn’t have been the person to interview Andrew Smith.  And my lightning fast neurons immediately reach the conclusion that I disappointed this (admittedly) rude guy– which doesn’t so much bother me because of his rudeness, but bothers me because maybe I let down other audience members.  And my happiness becomes self-doubt. And all this happens in an instant. And then he finishes his sentence.  The reason that I shouldn’t have been the interviewer?  Because I’m a woman. What?  And in the night of insomnia that followed (and an interesting Twitter exchange the following day) this blog was born. My next post is going to examine a lot of the complicated issues that this exchange raised for me– all while hopefully exploring WHY he might have felt comfortable expressing these views, and how I’m starting to suspect the publishing industry and the library world might accidentally be creating gender bias like this. All while not completely vilifying Mr. Audience Member– I mean, he did get me thinking, so that’s good, right?

In the end, Andrew Smith isn’t exactly culpable for whatever theories I attempt to work out on this blog. It’s not his fault an audience member’s intended compliment of Mr. Smith’s writing happened to be so admittedly awful that it raised my ire and drove me to the internet. But I like to think that he’d like the idea of being a catalyst in helping someone find her voice.