Canteen #5

LENA: But when I saw it today–hey, it’s Cap! Cap, over here!

CAP: Hey, guys.

ROB: Hey, friend!

LENA: Where have you been? Were you sick again?

CAP: Yeah, sick and then catching up on work. Sorry for not leaving a note.

LENA: You mean on the Bulletin Board of Bad Ideas?

ROB: Nobody calls it that except you.

LENA: It’s going to catch on.

CAP: Did something happen with the bulletin board while I was gone?

ROB: No more than usual.

CAP: Uh-oh.

LENA: You’ll notice that it’s not on the wall anymore.

CAP: Um…where is it?

LENA: The current theory is that it developed sentience and is holding our notes for ransom.

CAP: …Interesting theory.

ROB: I have pointed out that scribbled notes about bikes for sale and Have You Seen My Werewolf aren’t especially valuable–

LENA: But if it thinks they’re valuable–

ROB: In that case the larger problem is that it thinks.

LENA (to CAP): Things got really weird while you were gone. Never leave us again.

CAP (grinning): I’ll try. What were y’all talking about when I came in?

LENA: Oh! Rob had this fascinating theory–

ROB (modestly): It’s moderately interesting–

LENA: –that every time we have a conversation here, each of our stories–

A MEDIUM-SIZED SALAMANDER, BRIGHT ORANGE: Excuse me.

LENA: Hi.

SALAMANDER: Have you seen an invisible castle anywhere?

LENA: Is this a prank? The manager doesn’t really like those.

SALAMANDER: No, no! It shouldn’t be here, and I don’t think it is, but it isn’t where it belongs, either, so I wanted to ask just in case you’d seen it. Or run into it. You don’t look like you’ve run into it. None of you look concussed. (Pause.) Except maybe that one.

CAP: I’m not concussed, I’m just really tired.

ROB: I haven’t seen or run into anything like that.

LENA: Me either.

ROB: Maybe you should try the manager. An invisible castle seems like an actual problem if it’s here.

SALAMANDER: I will! Oh, but I wished to speak first with the permanent citizens.

CAP (side-eyeing ROB and LENA): Permanent citizens?

LENA: We haven’t seen an invisible castle.

SALAMANDER: Or–

ROB: Or run into one.

SALAMANDER: Alas. Thank you anyway and goodbye now.

LENA: You’re, um, you’re welcome.

CAP: Permanent citizens?

LENA: …Rob has this theory.

CAP: Uh huh.

LENA: We know that this place is outside of our stories, but maybe we bring back something, just a little bit of something, when we visit here.

CAP: What kind of something?

ROB: Like feelings, or new ideas. Not things, but…somethings.

CAP: Hmm. Interesting.

LENA: Stories always change over time.

ROB: Maybe this is part of why.

CAP: So things like jokes and idioms and whatever might make their way into the old stories when people tell them, because y’all are all swapping them here?

ROB: In theory it happens really, really slowly.

LENA: It could take generations.

ROB: It might not be that slow.

CAP: So what’s the thing you’re trying to make happen in your story?

ROB (guilty): Uh, what do you mean?

CAP: The salamander person said you’d been here a lot lately.

ROB: So has Lena!

LENA: I’m keeping you company.

ROB: Fine. Yes. I’m hoping to make things happen a little sooner than generations.

CAP: What kind of things?

ROB: …Someone introduced skinny jeans to my story.

CAP: Ooh. Ouch.

ROB: Yes. I’m not a fan. How do you wear those?

CAP: I guess I’m used to them.

ROB: Do you go running through the woods in them.

CAP: Rarely. I see your point.

ROB: Yes.

LENA: I’m not sure how we get you back in leggings, though.

ROB: I’d settle for trousers. Or sweatpants.

CAP: Can we make it happen?

ROB: I’m still not sure.

CAP: Hmm…how did skinny jeans make it into your story in the first place? Maybe we can trace it back from there.

(ROB and LENA turn on her slowly, without blinking.)

CAP: Hey.

(Silence.)

CAP: Come on, someone had to be thinking of putting you in skinny jeans long before I was wearing them.

(One slow blink from each of them.)

CAP: Dammit.

ROB: Yes.

CAP: I don’t think it’s going to help you out at all for me to wear tights.

ROB: They’re more like leggings.

CAP: Or leggings.

LENA: He said he’d settle for sweatpants.

CAP: Sweatpants?

ROB: Sweatpants.

(Two days later, CAP comes back, this time in sweatpants.)

CAP: Hey guys.

LENA: Hi.

ROB: …Hey.

CAP (to ROB): Whoa. You look miserable. What’s wrong?

(ROB lets out a dramatic wail and goes to get more coffee as CAP stares after him. LENA shrugs resignedly.)

LENA: Pumpkin pants.

CAP: Pumpkin pants? Like in Shakespeare?

LENA: Yup.

(Pause.)

CAP: That one’s not my fault.

LENA: Yup.

Who Would You Want To Be?

Wolfie the Bunny coverIf you haven’t read Wolfie the Bunny, you’re in for a treat. It’s a bright yellow picture book about a family of rabbits that takes in a baby wolf they find in a basket on their front porch. The parents are immediately infatuated with baby Wolfie; the daughter, Dot, is much more suspicious. It’s a sweet book that includes, among other things, repeated threats of homicide.

It’s one of my favorite books to read aloud to a group. Older kids love it as much as younger ones. There’s humor, action, and a bold illustration style that plays well to a room.

And when the projector won’t start and you need to stall, it’s a tremendously fun book with which to ask a group of second graders: Which character would you want to be?

It’s always an interesting question to consider, in books for both kids and adults, because it can be a tricky one. Do you decide based on the character’s history? Their skills and interests? The people they surround themselves with? The place they live? And what about disqualifying factors? Maybe you really love a character and they’re good at something you’ve always wanted to try, but you can’t stomach the way they treat someone else. Or you share a character’s passion for music and get very excited about the way she talks about it, but you have to balance that with the fact that she spends much of the novel in the hospital, and you’re deathly afraid of needles. It’s a strange thing to think about, borrowing an entire existence in one go.

So I asked these kids about Wolfie the Bunny. The conversation went like this.

CAP: Which character would you want to be? Go ahead, shout it out. (They did. Some of them yelled “Wolfie!” and some of them yelled “Dot!”) Okay, show of hands, who would want to be Dot?

(All of the girls raised their hands.)

CAP: And who would want to be Wolfie?

(All of the boys raised their hands. I wasn’t totally surprised, but I was a little disappointed, so I nodded like that answered the question and switched topics entirely.)

CAP: Okay, shout it out, who do you think is the bravest character in the book?

KIDS (gleefully): Dot!!

CAP: What makes her brave?

(They raised their hands and gave me a bunch of really good answers here—she stood up to a bear even though he could eat her, she told her parents what she thought even though they didn’t agree, etc.)

CAP: Okay, wait, I’ve forgotten, who did you say you wanted to be? Shout it out.

And here this hilarious thing happened, where all of the girls—and some of the boys—shouted “Dot!” with great enthusiasm, and several of the boys shouted “Wolfie!” with equal enthusiasm, and about a dozen of the remaining boys sat there with their mouths half-open, unable to decide. You could watch the gears turning behind their eyes. Some of them mumbled “Wolfie” a beat behind everyone else, and some of them said “Dot,” and some of them didn’t say anything at all.

I asked a different question, and we moved right along, and eventually the projector was fixed and the presentation went on as scheduled.

Who would you want to be? It’s a game, an idle one with no winners or losers. Try these lives on for size and see if one of them fits. No winners and no losers, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find yourself unexpectedly discomfited when the person whose life intrigues you most doesn’t look, talk, think, or act like you. You like people across a range of genders and they only like girls, and you have to wrap your head around how that matters to you. They have all of the skills you covet, but they also have a terrible singing voice, and singing is the primary thing in your life after food and water. They have blond hair and you like your brown hair; is that a sticking point for you? Do you find yourself trying to squish and twist the text to accommodate the parts of yourself you can’t give up, or are you willing to stretch yourself instead?

Plenty of people have already talked about how good it is for us to get outside of ourselves like that sometimes, and how important it is to tell a broad swath of stories because of that. We repeat aphorisms on the subject from Atticus Finch, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” is my favorite examination of the subject; she’s compassionate and needle-sharp at once.

What’s interesting to me about the who-would-you-want-to-be game that’s a little different from the diversity, inclusivity, etc. discussion is the limited circumstances the game places in front of you. Who would you want to be in this story? You can be a sweet wolf or a brave bunny (or, I guess, a homicidal bear), but in Wolfie the Bunny you can’t decide to be a sweet bunny or a brave wolf, because we don’t meet anyone like that on the page. Sure, Dot has her moments of empathy, and Wolfie has his moments of determination, and we can go searching those out. We hope that characters show nuance even in picture books. Still, no matter how nuanced, each character is given a specific set of circumstances and actions, and nothing else; and we have to decide exactly how far we can see ourselves going along with them.

In a limited field of options, we may sometimes get lucky and find our dream selves exactly center on the page, but much more often, what we’re going to have to decide is, which of these lives fits well enough?

That question demands not only empathy but an active choice to reconcile ourselves to imperfection. Our answer requires us to ask, will I stand by this character’s decisions even if I don’t agree with them all the time? Even if I don’t love them, even if they’re someone I wouldn’t get along with in real life? Even if I wouldn’t really want to be this person if I could help it? In this specific context, we ask ourselves, can I understand them, and perhaps admire them, enough?

You’re a boy, and you identify with Wolfie in that regard; and you want to be brave, so you identify with Dot. Now choose between the two. It’s artificial. It’s mind-bending. It’s often uncomfortable. And then you reach the end of the book, and you’re back in your very own skin, in your very own life, and the choices in front of you still aren’t perfect. They never are. We tell our kids that you can grow up to be whatever you want to be with hard work, talent, determination, pick your poison, but we can recognize in our own lives that that’s simply not true. I will never have the lungs to run a marathon no matter how hard I train; I am not wired to teach in a public school classroom; I will never work in Mission Control on a NASA mission to the moon because we don’t do that these days, and so I made different choices in high school and then in college, and now I’m here instead of somewhere else. I’m as happy as anyone can be right now and wouldn’t trade my life for all the moon landings in the solar system, though that, too, is partly a matter of chance, and anything can change.

The choices in front of us aren’t perfect, and they’re limited in scope no matter who you are; but that’s neither a good nor a bad thing. It just is. (The fact that some people face more limits than others because of the way society is structured is, as always, a point worth taking note of, and it can absolutely be a bad thing.) Our lives are messier and more complicated than any book we’ll ever read—Wolfie the Bunny or War and Peace—and stories are both how we make sense of the chaos and how we practice the decisions we may need to make.

Who would you be in this story? It’s a game.

It doesn’t mean anything unless you want it to.

Happy Independent Bookstore Day!

To celebrate, here are three things I love about working as a bookseller at an independent store:

  1. There’s always something new to learn. Each of us on staff has a few specialties, and then sometimes we just have to fill in a gap to get something done. This week I listened to one of my coworkers explain how mosques and cathedrals were built in Spain and also started learning to code. I love my job.
  2. I’m frequently proven wrong in a very good way. I wrote earlier this week about how there’s a bit of a stigma attached to grown-ups reading young adult fiction, and then yesterday I had a lovely adult customer who lit up like a Christmas tree when I asked if I could give her a YA recommendation as well as adult fiction ones. Bone Gap has a new home, and, okay, one interaction doesn’t negate the previous ones, but it’s a nice reminder to keep expanding my perspective as new information comes in.
  3. Kids. Always the kids. We met a three-year-old girl this week who was very quiet but super happy about the book about space she came in for with her mom. Jupiter is her favorite planet because of the big red spot that’s actually a storm; she asked me lots of questions about gravity; and when one of the other booksellers asked if she was going to go into space herself one day, she nodded vigorously. And then the next evening there was a kindergartener who chatted with me enthusiastically about black bears while I rang up his family’s books and then spontaneously reached over the counter for a high-five before he left with his mom. It’s been a good week.

So, whether you’ll be visiting a bookstore or not, have a lovely Independent Bookstore Day! If you do drop in to see us, we’ll be happy to say hey. And never forget: Jupiter’s Great Red Spot rotates counterclockwise, and black bears fish for salmon too even though we associate that with grizzlies.

Man, I love my job.

Spoiler Alert: I Like Young Adult Fiction

So I’m not really sure how it happened, but we seem to have decided as a society that young adult books aren’t real books.

That’s the conclusion I have to draw from two separate conversations I’ve overheard this week, one at the bookstore and one at one of my other jobs, which included variations on “I mean, it’s YA, but it’s not really YA, because it’s good.” One was at meeting of a book club, in reference to The Giver; I don’t know what the other comment was about.

I wasn’t technically part of either conversation–hazards of the service industry–so I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do, which was to ask (politely) for the speakers to clarify what they meant by a book not really being YA if it was good. Can kids’ books be good under that definition? What qualifies as YA? And why on earth are we so squeamish, as adults, about admitting that we sometimes read books for which teenagers are the target audience?

Quite aside from our rather bizarre hypocrisy of collectively expecting adults in the entertainment industry (and elsewhere) to look like teenagers when we apparently otherwise hold said teenagers in some contempt, I’m curious about what it is we object to about YA. I mean, I’m assuming that a lot of you who have read this far don’t object to it at all, but we’re a self-selecting sample. A larger (though similarly self-selecting) sample of librarians, booksellers, and authors I’ve worked or spoken with have related frequent anecdotes about being taken less seriously when they discuss YA than when they talk about either children’s or adult books. I can certainly say that I’ve had very few adult customers show any compunctions about purchasing children’s books to read themselves, but even some of my regular customers remain embarrassed when they buy Shadowshaper or Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong; when Twilight gets as much attention as it has, and when it then spawns not only a movie franchise but the surreal cultural phenomenon that is 50 Shades of Gray, I can understand that you might not have gotten the best first impression of young adult fiction. Maybe you’re also skeptical of the hoopla surrounding The Hunger Games and Harry Potter–I’d consider the last three books in that series to be YA–or have heard way too many people talking about love triangles and Manic Pixie Dream Girls in relation to stories for teenagers and are feeling a little burned out.

It’s curious to me, though, that the people I’ve overheard aren’t rejecting vampire books (the book club that appreciated The Giver is quite enthusiastic about non-Twilight vampires) or dystopias (witness the current popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, and 1984), or even genre fiction in general. They’re rejecting all literature written for young adults. Genre fiction, realistic fiction, humor, if it’s written with teenagers in mind, it’s out.

Notably, the three dystopian classics I just listed are all frequently read or taught in high school. We consider them eminently suitable for young adult audiences. But where I have no problems selling 1984 to a forty-five-year-old father of two, I find that the suggestion that they check out Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is met with blank stares, even though I would consider the two books to be comparably subtle (so, not especially, but there’s definitely a time and a place where that works well), and even though Little Brother is in fact free to read online if anyone’s interested.

Is it about the age of the main characters? But I’m not alone in loving To Kill a Mockingbird and City of Thieves, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is popular in multiple adaptations. And The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds is a solid example of a young adult novel in which the protagonist essentially functions as an adult, with jobs, grief, relationships, and looking after family the primary concerns.

Is it the lack of graphic sex and violence? I’d like to direct you here to the massive cultural obsession with Jane Austen, who relates very little sex or violence indeed, and the fact that I Am the Messenger and The Female of the Species are considered YA even with scenes of violence and sexual content that are as explicit as most literary fiction and sometimes more so.

I don’t have an answer here. I don’t know why some of us who work extensively with young adult fiction have run into skepticism, or why I keep hearing these kinds of comments, some of which customers say to my face as if I’ll undoubtedly agree. I don’t know why I’ve seen people who are clearly engrossed in March put it down when they find out it’s won YA honors. (We shelve it with adult books now and it does well.)

But I want to add on something that may or may not be a counterpoint to everything I’ve said so far: The Book Thief, which was originally published as an adult novel with a young narrator, is now frequently shelved in YA. I almost never have to hand-sell it; both adults and teenagers pick it up off the shelf without a word from me. Adults will sometimes ask where they can find it. The same is true of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros: it’s shelved in both YA and adult, because that’s where people look for it, and adults are quite happy to pick it up from the YA shelves.

There’s nothing that makes The Book Thief and The House on Mango Street more or less literary than, say, The Hate U Give. All are beautifully-written stories of vital, deeply human characters with much to say about wider society. The difference is in how we talk about them. We talk about The Book Thief and The House on Mango Street as books worth reading on their own merits. We celebrate the act of reading them rather than shaming each other or ourselves for it.

We can do that with more books, if we choose to. I’m starting to see it already with The Hate U Give, for which probably half my customers have been adults buying for themselves.

The Hunger Games still doesn’t have to be your cup of tea. It really isn’t mine. But we get to decide whether we dislike something for what it is, or whether we dislike it because we hold people who like it in contempt. You might notice that I’m heavily biased towards the former.

We decide what we take seriously. We decide what we let ourselves explore and what we let ourselves delight in.

Lucky us.

Canteen #4

ROB: You look thoughtful.

CAP: Oh. Yeah. Someone I care about died. He was old, but. You know. I keep looking up and expecting to see a tiny man with a rapier and a sketchbook standing in the doorway.

ROB: Yeah.

LENA: I’m sorry.

LEMONY SNICKET (out of nowhere, speaking to no one in particular): It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.

ROB: …

LENA: …

CAP: Thank you.

A Sixth Good Book

Earlier, in “Five Good Books,” I wrote about a few books for kids and adults talking about refugees, immigration, and asylum. Today I’ve got a sixth to add, in the adult-and-teen category: Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions.

Less than 150 pages long, this book is lean enough to fit in the pocket of my rain jacket and powerful enough to halt a rhinoceros mid-charge. The author was born in Mexico and now lives in New York, where she interprets for juvenile asylum-seekers and migrants; her essay includes a brief, frank discussion of the legal distinction between those two categories and who benefits from it (heads up: it’s certainly not the kids). These young people, ranging in age from small children to older teenagers, made the exceptionally dangerous journey from Central America through Mexico to the U.S. border, where almost all of them immediately took the terrifying step of turning themselves over to American immigration authorities. Detention and a hearing are often their only way to demonstrate that they have legitimate reasons to be afraid for their lives in the countries they came from, and thus legitimate reasons to be in the United States.

It’s not enough that they’re kids, and that they would never have made the frequently fatal trip without a very good reason, and that many of them are sponsored by relatives here.* No, they still have to put together a case for why they shouldn’t be forcibly returned to the places they fled from. And, thanks to the decision to fast-track juvenile immigration cases, they only have 21 days to do it.

That’s where Luiselli and her colleagues come in. The massive overload of juvenile immigration cases has been seriously exacerbated by the fast-track policy, and someone has to get these kids’ stories on paper so that they can be assigned the appropriate lawyers who handle the appropriate kinds of cases. (These cases, by the way, are civil, not criminal. That’s one of the reasons that the term “illegal immigrant” isn’t very useful; it’s generally much more accurate to describe someone as “undocumented,” which just means they haven’t been granted papers that prove their right to stay in the country. Many people, like some of the kids Luiselli interviews, arrive in the U.S. without documents but have perfectly legitimate claims to asylum or cases to make for long-term residency.)

Luiselli writes with straightforward candor about her experiences interpreting for these kids: the alarming bureaucracy they’re navigating, the hell they went through to get here, what they find and don’t find in their new communities. She also weaves in strands about her own family’s wait for their green cards and about a group of students she teaches in a Spanish Conversation class. Through it all runs the thread of her five-year-old daughter’s repeated requests when Luiselli talks about her work: “Tell me how it ends.”

Look, I don’t know how much of this book will be new to you. You might already be familiar with the reasons that people migrate from Central America, including gang warfare and state violence, and with the detention centers called hieleras, iceboxes/ICEboxes, where kids are warehoused without adequate food or clothing. You might already know the ins and outs of where public school fits into the immigration equation–no public school, if you’re wondering, can legally turn a student away simply because they lack a particular immigration document, though many do–and what it means for a relative to sponsor a child.

If you don’t already know this system inside and out, though–and for all that I’ve read about it, I definitely don’t know it that well–or if you’re looking for a lucid, concise, and evenhanded walk through this complex arrangement of organizations and regulations that is an intrinsic part of our country, I highly, highly recommend Tell Me How It Ends. There’s no grandstanding or political opining here. There are questions, and there are answers, and there’s the frank understanding that the answers that we want aren’t often the answers we’re going to get.

My coworkers and I are evenly divided on whether this book is a depressing one. Many of them found it depressing; I’m one of the ones who found it hopeful. “Tell me how it ends” is a child’s request to their mother, an impossible one to fulfill, but it’s also a request we all have for each other: please, please, tell me we have a way forward here. Luiselli doesn’t have an answer for that, but she does provide options and resources, and the essay is of course a resource of its own. Clear, well-considered accounts like this one are vital to building better systems for the future. Only by saying what is can we say what we need to do next, even if we never do get to see all the way to the ending.

 

*For more on the subject of the migrant journey through Mexico, see The Beast by Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez. That one’s definitely for adults and older teens specifically, while Tell Me How It Ends is something that, though written for an adult audience, I can recommend for thirteen and up.