I guess I get the audio book thing now Friday, Sep 26 2008 

I have a very long commute.  Over the course of a week, I spend upwards of thirty hours in my car.  That sucks, and not just because of high gas prices.  It’s also uncomfortable, frustrating, and a huge waste of time.  Not to mention boring.

I’ve always been sort of anti-audio books, because my mind tends to wander pretty easily (not the best thing when driving) so I assumed that trying to listen to one while driving would either a) distract me from driving or b) take forever for me to finish, because I’d have to keep rewinding to find what I missed.

But recently, in an effort to vary my routine a little, I gave in and checked out The Golden Compass.  I’ve tried a few books on CD in the past, and they’ve been ok, but I have had a few problems paying attention to them and have had to do a lot of rewinding.  So far, this has not been the case with Pullman’s novel.

Here’s the thing: I have tried at least three times to read the book.  I’ve never gotten past the first chapter.  I want to read the book, I’ve been interested in the story since I first heard about it.  But for some reason, I just can’t READ it. 

But now that I’ve got it on CD, I’m ENGROSSED.  I have that hungry feeling I get when I’m reading a book and can’t quite get enough of it.  It’s occured to me to sit out in my car after I’m finished driving so I can listen to more.  I think the accents help.  They definitely add a dimension that I can’t manage myself (though I usually do try).

After I finish the first book, I may try to sit down and actually read the second and third (after all, I did shell out the money to actually buy them), but at the very least, I know I can always turn to the audio book if I can’t seem to get through the rest of the trilogy on my own.

And can I just say how much I want an armored bear?


When a Book Gets Inside You and Won’t Let You Go Tuesday, Sep 23 2008 

I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Scott.  In fact, Perfect You was one of my favorite girly books last spring.  She usually places her characters in slightly off-kilter situations (a girl who’se mom works as a thief, or dad has quit his job to sell vitamins). 

In many ways, her latest offering, Living Dead Girl falls in line with her previous work.  But the truth is, while it might conform in the most basic ways, it leaves her previous novels far behind.

One thing I enjoy about her work is her subtelty.  She pulls her readers into a story that is always much deeper than excpected.  Her characters tend to be, in some way, hiding.  In Perfect You, for example, Kate feels invisible, and while that can suck, she also uses that invisibilty as a comfort blanket of sorts.  She hides behind it.  In Stealing Heaven, Dani is forced to hide.  She’s always on the run with her mom, casing houses, robbing them, and sneaking away in the night.  They live on teh fringes of society, constantly observing, but rarely participating.

In Living Dead Girl, Alice too hides.  She hides from the neighbors, for fear that, if they learn the truth, she and her family will be killed.  She hides from Ray, trying to remain as small and quiet as possible, so as not to attract his attention, good or bad.  Most of all, she hides from herself.  She retreats so far away from her own feelings, trapping herself in layers of dirt, in Soap Operas and talk shows, in striving to fulfill Ray’s demads so that, if she’s lucky, he’ll move on with his new Alice and leave her behind.

 The story itself, one of kidnapping, abuse, pedophilia, crazies, has been told.  But I don’t think I’ve ever heard it told like this.  Alice is not the typical charicature of a victim.  She does not find bravery within herself, or learn to deal with the pain through memories of her home and the hope that someday she’ll return.  She knows life as she knew it has ended, and the only thing she has to look forward to is death.  Yet she can’t bring herself to die, hard as she sometimes tries.  Because, as much as she represses it, refuses to admit its existence, hope is there, very deeply stored.

And though she’s been tortured into something not quite human, a “living dead girl,” in the end, she proves there’s something, some vestige of humanity, that remains.  Though the ending is left vague, both hope and compassion come through in unexpected ways, without the sentimentality or contrivance of a joyful homecoming, or a completely recovery.

 This is a dark book, and incredibly intense.  Many of the reviews have commented on the fact that it’s impossible to read it straight through.  You have to put it down, take a break, from time to time.  But when you pick it back up, you’re immediately sucked back into Alice’s cruel, empty world. 

On top of the difficult topic and gruesome characters, Scott takes genre and twists it on its head, mixing verse and prose, and creating a voice that is at once detached from the situation and highly real. 

Younger teens might have difficulty with both the subject matter and the intense description.  But for those who are drawn to the book, who are interested in reading it, I highly, highly, highly recommend it.

One person’s trash… Wednesday, Sep 17 2008 

I was recently dismayed to here a YA librarian talking about collection development refer to books like The Clique, Gossip Girl, and The A-List as “trash,” and subsequently question the value of purchasing them for a teen collection.  While I’m not a fan of these novels (something about the writing style makes them very difficult for me to get into), my feeling on referring to any book as “trash” is one of immediate revulsion. 

This conversation lead me to start thinking about the concept of censorship, something librarians are violently, and vociferously, opposed to.  It seems that the attempt to pull Harry Potter of the shelf leads to international debate.  Even classics, like Steinbeck and Fitzgerald, get backing from librarians who otherwise bad mouth such novels (another topic that gets my blood boiling, but for another day).  But it seems, perhaps, there’s a line after all.

Since its initial publication, Cecily Von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl series has been a smash hit with teenage girls, a difficult audience under most circumstances.  And since the day after its publication, parents, teachers, journalists, and concerned citizens have been railing against the series for its message that sex, drugs, alcohol, and vicious backstabbing are not only not a problem when engaged in by teenage girls, but are encouraged as ways to get what you want.

Now, I’m not saying we should be telling our teenagers to act like the spoiled, often immoral characters populating the pages of novels like these.  But I am saying that, if you’re going to declare a book like Judy Blume’s Forever a vital part of a library’s collection, despite the sex, why should Gossip Girls be different?

Yes, I understand that in Judy Blume’s “sex” novels, the characters are in committed relationships.  They think about their decisions, use birth control, and tell each other “I love you,”  while in Von Ziegesar’s “sex” novels, the characters are having sex for power, because they’re drunk, or to get back at someone else.  I get the distinction.  But there are some readers, parents, religious leaders, and teachers who say sex in teen books is out of the question.  Period.  If we give in on Gossip Girls, one of the most challenged books in recent years, other books, good books, books with “morals” (whatever that means) could go next.

What I found most disturbing about this conversation, however, wasn’t the suggestion that the librarian wanted to ban the book (which was hazy at best).  It was, as I mentioned earlier, her use of the word “trash” and her suggestion that a book she considered of poor quality be removed from collections simply because she labeled it “trash.”

I’m against censorship, but I understand why a parent or someone might take offense at certain books (Harry Potter  problems are still beyond my comprehension), but while I’ll listen and respectfully disagree to someone with an argument based in supposed morality, my hackles rise at the thought that someone wants to pull a book for it’s being poor quality.

I think Dan Brown is crap.  I can’t stand Jodi Piccoult.  But I would still buy them for my collection (if that were my job), because I know they would circulate.  And besides, who am I to judge whether a book is good or not?  My taste may be totally different from another reader’s.  My standards are usually incredibly high.  But that’s all a matter of opinion.  It’s personal.  And just like it’s not the place of a “Concerned” parent to push her personal values on the community at large, it’s not my place to push my opinions and taste on my patrons.

Banned Books and Bulletin Boards Wednesday, Sep 17 2008 

With Banned Book Week coming up, I’ve been in over my ears with book displays related to censorship.  On Monday, I put up a display of banned middle grade and YA books and found myself somewhat dismayed.

As I put together my list before going to the shelf to pull, I started to realize that EVERY BOOK I COULD THINK OF had made it onto a banned books list!

In hindsight, this shouldn’t have shocked me.  I mean, if all it takes to get a book challenged is one “concerned parent” to decide a book (they probably haven’t even read) is dirty, or encourages anti-authoritarian attitudes, than YA is pretty much screwed, right?  

Not to mention the ministers and priests who tell their congregations to complain about Harry Potter, or the latest book telling children to forsake God and worship Satan through sorcery and talking animals.

Not to point a finger or anything.

So in the end, I just went down the aisles, pulling stuff that caught my eye.  I figured Judy Blume and Roald Dahl were good choices across the board.

To read a great rant about book banning, check out “And Absalom has kissed her lower eye…”

How to take advantage of a teachable moment (when the student doesn’t care) Tuesday, Sep 16 2008 

Last weekend the entire Chicagoland area was covered, and I mean covered, with torrential-style rain.  Ducks were swimming down the streets.

While this wassuper-adorable of them, other, less cute consequences of the rain included the flooding of my library’s consortium office.  This meant that, among other problems, some of our computer functions were down.  For some reason, this included the internet in the youth services department.

A few patrons throughout the day had problems due to this lack of connectivity, but for the most part, things went smoothly until about 4:00.  I was busy helping a girl looking for books about ghosts, when a boy, about 8 years old, came up to the desk.  Since I was obviously busy, he went to the other person on desk.  This was sort of a mistake on his part, as she’s kind of mean.

He asked her, somewhat politely, “what’s wrong with the internet,” ro which she oh-so-sweetly replied, “I don’t know.”  He looked confused, but persevered. 

“I have a homework assignment and I need the internet,” he tells her.  She didn’t exactly soften up, but she managed to at least ask him what the assignment is.  “I have to find the syntonyms and antonyms of all these words,” he said, holding up a worksheet.  “Use a book,” she said and turned away to help another patron. 

Looking kind of stunned (and who wouldn’t be, after such a reception?), he walked away, presumably to talk to his baby-sitter who was helping him with homework.  I was still with my patron, or I would have immediately lent a hand, but luckily another librarian happened to be out on the floor at the time and I noticed her showing him how to use a Thesaurus a few minutes later.


About twenty minutes passed, and I was busily sorting through piles of storytime DVD’s when the boy’s baby-sitter came up to te desk.  She explained that he was having trouble using the Thesaurus and couldn’t find two of the words he needed.  Since it was only two words, I offered to look them up for him.  I figured I would take the opportunity to show him a few good sites for something like this.  A few minutes later, he came back up to the desk. 

“I hear you need to find two more words,” I say.  He shakes his head.  “I need to find fifteen words,” he says, holding out his worksheet. 

Ok, even if I had time to help him with that, I wasn’t going to just sit there and do his homework for him.  That pretty much fits into my definition of “cheating.”  So instead of going to the website I’d been planning to show him, I asked him if he needed help with the thesaurus.  He said he was having trouble with it, so I offered to come back and help him get started.

While I was trying to find a child-friendly thesaurus (rather than the giant Webster’s with the tiny type he’d been trying to use), I heard him complainging to his baby-sitter.  “This is so stupid, I need the internet for this, I don’t want to do it this way,” and on and on in that vein. 

At this point, I was getting a little annoyed because a) like I said, I’m not going to do his homework for him and b) that kind of attitude just makes homework worse.  But he’s not my child, student, or baby-sitting charge, so I pasted on a smile and ignored his negativity.

I sat down with my nice Scholastic picture thesaurus and opened it up.  Together, we found a few words, and I showed him how to use a few different features of the Thesaurus.  Instead of saying thank you, or engaging with the process at all, he tells me “This doesn’t work, I need the internet.”

Here’s my point in relating this little drama, something I don’t much like to do, as it seems a violation of patron privacy or something: Despite the multiple studies lately saying how the internet and Google are changing the way we think, read, and process information, I really haven’t bought too much into any of them.  I mean, yes, obviously the way we search for information on the web is different from the way we use books and other print resources.  But then, the way we search for information in an encyclopedia is different from the way we search for it in a biography, for example. 

I always saw the internet as another great tool to add to an ever-growing list of resources.  I still do.  I never believed it was making us stupid, or lazy, or changing the way our brain actually functions as a whole.  But after this incident, I’m beginning to wonder what the effect of an “internet brain” will have on the generations who learn how to use it before they understand the principles behind conducting a search, the types of things you learn when your 2nd grade teacher shows you how to look up words in a thesaurus or ideas in an encyclopia.

Is assigning students homework which utilizes the internet first and foremost teaching them to always take the easy way out when it comes to research?  Let’s face it, most of us are already lazy when it comes to searching for information: will teaching kids to go to Google before they’ve mastered the fundamental principles of “looking stuff up” keep them from being able to function in situations where the “hard way” is the only way?

Not that the easy way’s the bad way; I would personally go to an online thesaurus before I picked up Webster’s.  But situations like this make me think about that episode of South Park where the internet dies and everyone freaks out.  Sometimes I feel like we’re teaching kids to rely too heavily on the internet, and that kind of worries me.

How to Skin a Teenager Friday, Sep 5 2008 

Of all the ARCs I picked up at this year’s ALA Annual Convention, one of those I was most looking forward to reading was Skinned by Robin Wasserman.  Unfortunately, in my usual scatterbrained way, I completely forgot where I put the book when I unpacked one of my many boxes.

I finally found it on the bottom shelf of my bookshelf behind the couch.  (Not a good place for a bookshelf, in case you’re wondering.) 

I finished it this week and it was not what I expected.  Having recently read Meg Cabot’s Airhead, (also a pretty good read) I was expecting a similar story with a darker and more futuristic tone. 

Oh My God, I was wrong.

If you’ve read  Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake you might recognize some similar dystopian elements, but in general, I felt like Wasserman really created something unsuaul and unique in her post-apocolyptic society.  In a world where everyone is Linked-in night and day; where people don’t age, they rejuvenate; and where cities are frightening places where energy is regulated to a tiny trickle so the rich can maintain their lifestyles of tech-clothes, music players that change songs based on the mood of the listener, self-driving cars, and contact lenses that connect the wearer to the network with the blink of an eye.

After the nuclear wars have destroyed the ozone, as well as turbulent zones like the Middle East, religion is considered out of style and bordering on crazy.  No one thinks twice about genetically modifying embryoes, even paying extra to ensure low BMI’s and high IQ’s.  But when Lia Kahn, the richest of the rich, dies, the latest life-giving technology proves too much for her society to handle.

I don’t want to give away too much plot, but let me just say that I was fully caught up in the turbulence of the novel.  By the end, despite my sympathies for Lia, I still found myself questioning her right to life.  Or, more accurately, her right to identity.  Wasserman’s newest book does what all great dystopian books should: it makes you question yourself and your world.  It makes you wonder if that which you think of as normal life could really be the seeds of a bleak and frightening future.

The book comes out on September 9 (that’s not too far away), and is a must-read!  The first book in a planned trilogy, I’m definitely looking forward to the next two installments!

Check out additional reviews here: Jen Robinson’ Book Page