Monthly Archives: March 2013

Reading at 13, 15, and 17


Such a great question, and one I’m finding myself somewhat flummoxed by, as I don’t quite remember what I read in my leisure time at 15 years old. As we’ve discussed IRL, I’m working on a post for Adult Books 4 Teens about reading Stephen King, who was my great love from 11 to about 15, but 15 is when I stopped reading him.  Also in that period I remember reading a lot of Michael Crichton.

christgauMeanwhile, as you pointed out, my twitter handle, @droogmark (which was also my first AIM handle in college) is from A Clockwork Orange, which I read during a period I remember much better.  The summer between Junior and Senior years of high school (when I was 17), I tore through a large number of world-shaking (or at least me-shaking) books: A Clockwork Orange, 1984, Brave New World, Catch-22, a number of Vonnegut books, and several others.  This was, obviously, a very heady summer for me, and Catch-22 remains one of my favorite books of all time.

So what the heck was I reading when I was 15?  Well, I certainly did read The Catcher in the Rye, but that was for Jim Harville’s Intro to English Literature Course–I also read for that class a not-unreadable prose translation of The Odyssey, and (the start of a life-long obsession) Macbeth.  Certainly, these books all affected me deeply, but I still can’t recall what I was reading in my spare time.  It occurs to me that I may not have been reading a whole lot, as I was pretty overloaded with homework from teachers like Mr. Harville.

videohoundThe only books I know for sure that I was reading were nonfiction: I was still reading quite a bit about The Beatles at that time (an obsession which began in 4th grade or so, but lasted much longer than Stephen King)–biographies, critical analyses, general books about the 60s counter-culture.  It was already around 15 that I started to get into reading criticism.  I remember reading a lot of reviews of movies and music–the perennial AllMusic Guide, the Videohound books, Rolling Stone magazine, Robert Christgau’s review volumes. And now that I think of it, that reading may have had a lot more of an impact on my actual life than The Catcher in the Rye or Catch-22.  After all, I now spend a large part of my professional life reading and reviewing books, not a lot of time engaging in teenage angst or war protest.

So there you have it–my very confused recollections of reading at 13, 15, and 17.  You may remember some it better than I do–any thoughts?


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Reading at 15


We have talked before–here and elsewhere–about what makes a book, especially an adult book, appealing to teens. As you know, I just finished doing some workshops for librarians at the San Francisco Public Library. I talked about serving teens in the public library to two groups of mostly adult services (and a few children’s services) librarians, and one group of teen services librarians. As an introduction/icebreaker exercise, I thought I would get them in the mindset of being a teenager, so I asked them to share with the group what book (or author or genre) blew them away when they were 15.

I thought that the whole exercise was very revelatory and fascinating. Most (but not all)  of the people in the classes were teenagers before the category of young adult books really took off, and most of the books mentioned were adult books. So let me share a few thoughts from what I heard:catcher

One book that came up in each of the three sessions was Catcher in the Rye. The interesting thing about that was that in each case, the person  who mentioned it (both male and female) said something to the effect that it was the book that told them that they weren’t alone in how they felt about things–it was a “someone gets how I feel” message.

Some books were clearly deeply important to the readers, even today. Two different people, in different sessions, mentioned The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and someone else said specifically that The Grapes of Wrath had opened her eyes to inequities. Several other people mentioned Steinbeck, incidentally: Of Mice and Men and East of Eden, in particular.  Someone else mentioned Nineteen Eighty-Four, which made her think about government in a whole different way. A Latina recalled being stunned to discover Bless Me, Ultima, and to realize that there was literature for and by Latinos. Others mentioned I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Toni Morrison, and The Bell Jar.

BellJarThere was, naturally, a contingent of science fiction and fantasy readers. Some couldn’t remember specific titles, but just knew that they read “everything” in the genre. Others mentioned Lord of the Rings, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books, Ender’s Game, Asimov’s Foundation novels, and Michael Moorcock’s books. There was at least one Stephen King fan, and a couple of Arthurian devotees–The Once and Future King was mentioned, as was The Mists of Avalon.

I was amused that two people mentioned a book that I know you have a strong dislike for: Lord of the Flies. Others got seriously into Kurt Vonnegut or Hermann Hesse. One woman said she didn’t like to read at all until she was introduced to plays, and remembers in particular A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman. A man said he also wasn’t much of a reader, except that he avidly read magazine articles on sports. Another also claimed not to have been a reader, but said he read Poe’s short stories, and biographies and autobiographies of rock musicians. Another man read business books his father had left lying around–he particularly remembers The Peter Principle and Up the Organization!MalcolmX

And it wasn’t only the men who read nonfiction. One woman said she read everything she could find on archaeology, and another, after watching reruns of “Upstairs, Downstairs” on PBS, found herself fascinated by a massive biography of Churchill’s mother, Jennie.

Several women mentioned reading romances, and one mentioned specifically the gothic romances of Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt. One said she read “anything with sex in it.”

Other specific titles that were mentioned: A Confederacy of DuncesDavid Copperfield, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, The Outsiders, Forever, Rule of the Bone, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

EnderSo I’ve been thinking about these  books and coming to a few conclusions in regard to teens and reading.

First of all, obviously, anything and everything seems to qualify as a book for teens. Many of the titles mentioned do in fact have young protagonists, and many deal with those important coming-of-age questions.

But others were mostly important to these people because they had important ideas. They gave the teens a way to find out about something they were interested in, or to exercise their newly-attained skills in critical thinking and reasoning. They gave them a way to experience something  that either validated who they were or gave them insight into someone who was different–the old “mirrors and windows” metaphor.

I think the other interesting thing to me was that out of the fifty or so people in those three workshops, there weren’t all that many people who mentioned the same book. As I noted before, Catcher in the Rye came up several times, as did various works of Steinbeck, Lord of the Flies, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Of course, responses to a question like this are going to vary a lot by age. I did have a mix of people from probably their early thirties to their sixties in these groups, and there were some clear differences in generations. On the other hand, I’ll bet some of these same titles would come up today.

It would be interesting to know what books, in about twenty years from now, will stick out as life-changing classics. Will there be YA books on that list? If so, what?

Any thoughts on this? (No one mentioned A Clockwork Orange, @droogmark; how old were you when you read it?) And how about our readers? What book sticks out in your mind from your teenage years?

– Mom


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Here is my promised post on Midwinterblood, by Marcus Sedgwick. This is my first pick of the year as a serious Printz contender.


Well, the style and form are unique and fascinating. The book is made up of seven sections, plus an epilogue. The first begins in 2073, when a journalist named Eric Seven travels to a remote northern island called Blessed, where he meets a woman named Merle and learns about a flowers called the blessed dragon orchid.

The successive sections move back in time–2011, 1944, 1902, 1848, 10th century, “time unknown,” with the epilogue returning to 2073. The stories are different, but connected by the place, and by words, ideas, themes, motifs: characters named (some version of) Eric and Merle; the number 7; dragons; blood; sacrifice; the moon; hares. There’s more, too. I have the sense that if I went back and read it again, I would find even more motifs that connect the sections.

Even the name of the island is not as simple as it appears. We learn that although it is called “Blessed” or “Blest,” it was once “Bletsian” and before that “Blotsian” from the word “Blot” or blood. As one character says, “To bless means to sacrifice. And in blood.” This, by the way, is true, according to the OED. The original meaning of “to bless” was “to make sacred or holy with blood.”Midwinterblood

This is a hard book to talk about. While it doesn’t have a plot, as such, it does propel the reader forward (backward?) as we see how the past times are connected with the story that begins in the future.

The writing, as always with Sedgwick, is lovely. And always, those connections. Let me quote a brief portion of the 1944 section:

“Hovering between life and death, the airman’s dreams are as twisted and broken as his fighter plane, which still smokes on a hillside a mile away. . . . He groans in his sleep, and thrashes wildly, disturbing the hare that has been sitting nearby, watching him, wide eyes blinking in the near moonless night. Finally, as he wakes in the early daylight, he dreams he’s being eaten by a dragon.” Just in a few words, we have a hare, a dragon, the moon, light (another motif I didn’t mention earlier), and dreams (another repeating motif). See what I mean?

Midwinterblood3 I suspect that one of the challenges Midwinterblood may face this year in the awards discussion arena is that it doesn’t actually present itself as a YA book. The characters, for the most part, are not teens, and it doesn’t shout “YA” in any way. I do think, however, that teens will be drawn to it, to the mystery, to the hints of horror, to the theme of sacrifice. The tagline on the British editions is “What would you sacrifice for someone you’ve loved for ever?” and that in itself, besides the intriguing cover art in all of the various editions, will draw teens in. I’ll be interested to hear how it circulates in your library and others.

As for me, it’s a top book of the year so far. Have you had a chance to read it yet?

– Mom


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More on the Carnegies


First of all, how did I not notice that my post on Monica Never Shuts Up fit in with your post on black cover art?

Second–the Carnegie Medal.  The crossovers with our ALA awards are indeed fascinating, and I do love that paragraph from the awards criteria, but what struck me when I was looking at the Wikipedia page, which lists the shortlists, was how frequently the same authors come up over and over.  Obviously Patrick Ness won the Medal twice in a row, but look at the shortlisted authors over the last decade or so:

Marcus Sedgwick, David Almond, Meg Rosoff, Philip Reeve, Terry Pratchett, Siobhan Dowd (whose name, of course, also appears on the title page of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls), Frank Contrell Bryce, Geraldine McCaughrean, Aidan Chambers–it seems like these authors get shortlisted for practically every book they write. 

This is just really not something you see in the ALA awards–there are precious few double Printz awardees, and even in the long history of the Newbery, there aren’t that many authors who get named multiple times. I don’t know if this is because there are relatively fewer books that are “first published in the UK” as Carnegie winners must be, or if they have a different attitude towards repeat winners, but I find it really fascinating.  It certainly makes it really easy to see what (mostly) British authors we should be paying attention to in America.

Also, on that Wikipedia page, they mention that in 2007, in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Carnegie, there was a poll to determine the favorite Carnegie winner–“six children’s book experts” picked ten of the 67 winners, and then the nation voted.  Predictably, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (AKA The Golden Compass) won, but the reason I bring it up is that one of the ten book the “children’s book experts” put on the list was Jennifer Donnelly’s A Gathering Light (AKA A Northern Light–presumably retitled in the UK to avoid confusion with Pullman’s book, which is funny since that book was retitled for the American market).  In any case, I thought you would be interested that Donnelly’s book was one of the choices for the “Carnegie of Carnegies,” since it was one of the books your Printz committee chose as an honor book.

– Mark

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Carnegie Medal


I will definitely read Monica Never Shuts Up (despite my uneasy relationship with the short story as a literary form–I actually almost always find much to admire in the short stories that I read; I just have trouble convincing myself to read them!).

Meanwhile, the shortlist for the Carnegie Medal has been announced. The Carnegie Medal is awarded by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals for an outstanding book written in English for children and young people. This year’s shortlist includes eight titles, three of which we have talked about at some length (Code Name Verity, In Darkness,  and Wonder, one that I plan to talk about soon (Midwinterblood), and four that I haven’t read or even heard much about (The Weight of Water, by Sarah Crossan, A Greyhound of a Girl, by Roddy Doyle, A Boy and a Bear in a Boat, by Dave Shelton, and Maggot Moon, by Sally Gardner). The Crossan, Doyle, and Shelton books are listed as for ages 8+ or 9+, which says to mean that they are more middle-grade than YA books.

I noticed that the covers of Code Name Verity, In Darkness, and Midwinterblood in the press release are quite different from the American covers–and in the case of Code Name Verity even different from the other British versions of the cover I have seen.InDarkness2 Midwinterblood2 Verity4

But more than that, I was looking at the list of Carnegie Medal winners for the past fifteen years or so. It is interesting to see where they cross with American lists.

2012: A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness. Got a lot of buzz here, and was a Top 10 BFYA.

2011: Monsters of Men, by Patrick Ness. Interesting, since it was the third book in a series, and sequels tend to have a hard time making it onto our lists these days.

2010: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. Also won the Newbery.

2009: Bog Child, by Siobhan Dowd. BBYA.

2008: Here Lies Arthur, by Philip Reeve. BBYA.

2007: Just in Case, by Meg Rosoff. BBYA.

2006: Tamar, by Mal Peet. BBYA

2005: Millions, by Frank Cottrell Boyce.

2004: A Gathering Light, by Jennifer Donnelly. Published in the US as A Northern Light, and was a Printz Honor book.

2003: Ruby Holler, by Sharon Creech.

2002: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, by Terry Pratchett. BBYA.

2001: The Other Side of Truth, by Beverley Naidoo. BBYA.

2000: Postcards from No Man’s Land, by Aidan Chambers. Also won the Printz.

1999: Skellig, by David Almond. Printz Honor book.

Anyway, just interesting to see the crossovers.

And, finally, from the award criteria, I wanted to share this paragraph:

“The book that wins the Carnegie Medal should be a book of outstanding literary quality. The whole work should provide pleasure, not merely from the surface enjoyment of a good read, but also the deeper subconscious satisfaction of having gone through a vicarious, but at the time of reading, a real experience that is retained afterwards.”

I love this. I love the way it makes a clear distinction between a book that is a “good read” and a book that is truly outstanding. I think this is a factor in the “re-readability” discussion that was taking place on one of the other blogs this award season. I really admire the way this is expressed–that idea that one gets satisfaction from having read a book of outstanding literary quality, and that is something that is retained afterwards. Just a great way to express what award committees should be looking for.

– Mom

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Monica Never Shuts Up


monicaSo, I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but AS King has a book of short stories out–it’s aimed at adults, and was originally only available as an ebook but at the prodding of myself and some other librarians who wanted to buy it for our collections, Amy put it out in paperback as well.  

Anyway–it is fantastic.  Twelve very short stories (the whole thing comes in under 100 pages), each one a tiny gem.  In a lot of ways, the short story is the perfect venue for Amy’s talents, because (as you and I have both noted elsewhere) her gifts for characterization are such that it only takes a line or two for the reader to completely believe in the character.  With that kind of talent, it’s almost superfluous to write a 300 page novel, when 8 or so pages can get the same level of depth. 

I can’t see any particular reason not to recommend the book to teen who love her novels, but I do see why she is calling it an adult collection.  The stories are bleak. A compulsive liar; a thief and hoader; a little boy who knows the exact time everyone will die and a little girl who knows how; a man (and then his son) sent to a distant planet as a punishment for littering: pretty much every premise is depressing.  That said, the point of the stories seems to be finding the moments of hope, humanity, and love within these bleak situations.  Many, if not all, of these stories are quite heart-breakingly beautiful.  There’s somewhat less of Amy’s trademark humor (hence, the bleakness), but that’s there as well, particularly in the first and last stories.

It would be a little tedious to try to describe the plots of each of the stories, so I’ll just say–go read it (if you haven’t already).  You can by it in various e-formats here, or  pick up a print copy from Amazon.

– Mark


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Black covers


So I was standing in front of the YA New Book section in my library yesterday and I suddenly noticed that a ton of the books had very dark, even black covers. Or at least black was the predominant color.

I know there are trends in cover art. I remember the pink covers of a few years ago, and I’m sure there have been times when blue has trended. But now it’s definitely black. Here are some examples:

ScheidtHolly BlackYanceyHappy10874177 15798680aynwgraffitiThe Opposite of Hallelujahpersonal effectsHomeland IHuntKillers Redemption BeautifulDarkness



– Mom


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