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.

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.

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.

How To Judge a Book By Its Cover, Part 2

Okay, in Part 1, we talked about a cover that works really, really well: the hardback jacket of The Hate U Give. That cover is a great way to meet the book and takes on additional depth as you read. It’s also really beautiful.

What about a cover that’s kind of terrible?

Take Ella Enchanted. This is a book I love that has several different paperback covers, so it’s a little miniature case study in itself. The paperback I have, copyright 1997, does its job. It suggests, at least to me, a story with a fairy-tale element that is focused on its protagonist rather than on the quirks of its setting. Like The Hate U Give, it centers its main character on the cover; the girl on Ella Enchanted is painted in a more portrait-like style suggesting an indeterminate historical time period, but she’s still not quite photorealistic. Check, check, and check; I’d consider this a useful depiction of the book, even if the Ella on the cover turns out not to have many features in common with Ella the protagonist.

Ella Enchanted cover 1

Now do your impression of this book a deep disservice by doing a search for the two more recent paperback covers, the ones that mostly come up when you just look for the title.

There are flourishes. There are sparkles. One has the uncanny, faintly cartoonish style that’s inexplicably very popular with children’s fantasy publishers at the moment; the other has lurid magenta faux-embossing and a photograph of a girl who definitely doesn’t look old enough to be the protagonist.

Contrast the 1997 paperback with the others, and tell me: which do you think is going to be most appealing for a kid looking for a straightforward, adventurous, somewhat awkward main character whose primary concern isn’t romance but breaking herself free of a curse that’s sometimes inconvenient and sometimes dangerous? Which do you think looks most apt for the seventh-grade reader who I’d say is the target audience?

Ella Enchanted is a book I love, and frequently it’s a book that my customers love once I can convince them that the sparkles aren’t the whole story, but I can’t tell you how many kids have told me after reading it, “You were right, it’s not like I was expecting from the cover! It was so good!” That’s a bit rough, because it means that those same kids likely wouldn’t have given the book a second thought at the library. It’s not just the sparkles, either. The girls on the new covers look significantly younger than the older teenager Ella is for most of the book. There’s no violence or sexual content to make the book straight-up inadvisable for younger kids, but I still think that the nuanced humor and specific dilemmas Ella faces make it a much more engaging book for a thirteen-year-old than a nine-year-old.

And yeah, we can tell people not to judge a book by its cover, or by the premise, or by the first five pages. When we’re filling our bags at the library, it’s true that we’ll miss out on things if we reject a book outright just because of the way it looks. But there are a lot of books in the world, and a lot of people like me talking about them, and thus there’s a lot of information swirling around. We can tell ourselves we should do all of our research and make each book decision with the utmost care, lest we fail to optimize our reading experiences; or we can tell ourselves it’s okay to go with our guts as long as we keep an open mind about sometimes being wrong.

The sky hasn’t fallen because the newer paperbacks of Ella Enchanted (or Circus Mirandus, which has a striking red-and-white-striped cover in hardback and an overcrowded digital collage in paperback, or The Goose Girl and its sequels, which in their first paperback versions kept Alison Jay’s gorgeous cover illustrations but were later redone with photos) misrepresent the stories. The books haven’t been consigned to oblivion; some people might even have read them who wouldn’t have otherwise, though I do wonder what those people thought when they cracked the covers and found what kind of stories actually lived inside.

Still, for all that bad cover design doesn’t have to be the end of the world, it certainly doesn’t do a book any favors. No matter how many platitudes we may come up with to the contrary, judging a book by its cover is frequently a perfectly useful exercise (see Part 1). Covers, like anything else about books, have developed their own conventions and their own spin on our collective visual language. We can declare that null and void if we want to make our trips to the bookstore and the library a lot more complicated, or we can agree that we’ve made these things into much more than pretty pictures.

So go ahead–judge those covers. Pull a book off the shelf just because you like its spine. Decide that today you’re going to read something yellow. You can always put it down if things don’t work out, and you might find something you’d never think to read otherwise.

But maybe consider Ella Enchanted too, even if all you’ve got is one of the more disappointing paperbacks. It’s funny and sharp and clever without losing sight of how messy, delightful, and frequently alarming it is to be an individual human in a very large world. And hey, if all else fails, you can always wrap the covers in paper and draw your own.

Canteen #3

LENA: That can’t possibly be true.

ROB: It is! Honestly!

CAP: So what did you say to him?

ROB: “Excuse me, I believe that’s going to be my hat in a minute.”

LENA (as she and Cap both dissolve laughing): And he just gave it to you?

ROB: Wouldn’t you?…Oh no, what’s going on?

(They look. A small crowd is beginning to gather in the doorway.)

LENA: Uh-oh.

CAP (to Rob): Are you wanted for anything?

ROB (faintly miffed): Not here.

LENA: There’s nothing planned for today, right?

CAP: Not that I know of.

ROB: Maybe we should go.

CAP: There’s another crowd at the back door.

LENA: I don’t see any weapons.

CAP: And the manager hasn’t gotten out her sword…Wait a minute, are those kids?

(Pause.)

ROB: Oh, we are definitely leaving.

LENA: You like children!

ROB: These aren’t children, they’re monsters.

CAP: I don’t see the problem.

ROB: You will in a minute. See the one in the big coat?

CAP: Yes?

ROB: Look familiar to you?

(Pause as they stare.)

LENA: …Oh.

CAP: Hm. Yeah. Gotcha.

LENA: I thought he wore a top hat, though.

ROB: Sometimes. It showed up in the illustrations and I guess most versions have kept it, but it’s not really his thing.

CAP: I would have thought you guys would get along nicely.

ROB: Dodger and I run in slightly different circles.

LENA: Well, they can’t thieve here. The manager wouldn’t stand for it, and she still doesn’t look too unhappy. It must be fine.

ROB: They don’t have to thieve to be monsters.

CAP: Okay, your cryptic comments are very interesting and all, but do you want to explain why you’re feuding with a twelve-year-old kid?

ROB: It’s not a feud.

CAP: Still asking.

ROB: Um…

LENA: We can start guessing if you’d rather.

ROB: Please don’t.

LENA: He once ate a honey cake you’d baked for your grandmother.

ROB: …No.

CAP: He painted your house blue, and you prefer green.

ROB: What? No.

LENA: You were both planning to steal the crown jewels and he got there first.

ROB: We don’t steal stuff like that!

CAP: He stole your wife’s wedding band and sold it before you could retrieve it.

ROB (with dignity): I am not married.

LENA: Is it something stupid? It’s going to be something stupid.

ROB: Can we drop this, please?

CAP: Did he pick your pocket? Is that all?

ROB: No.

LENA: Wait. I know that tone. Did you accuse him of picking your pocket?

(Pause.)

ROB: Anybody want more coffee? Cap?

CAP: Have you ever seen me drink coffee?

ROB: You said you missed being able to drink it. I thought you might be ready to reintroduce it.

CAP (grinning): My, what impeccable timing you have, it’s like you’ve read my mind.

LENA: I can’t believe you’d go around accusing people at random.

ROB: It was hardly at random!

LENA: Poor kid. I bet you had your wallet with you all along.

ROB: It was my keys, and no, it turned out that a dragon had taken them for a chew toy.

CAP: A dragon?

ROB: Why do you think they have that sign now?

(He points to “PATRONS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR DAMAGES CAUSED BY PETS”)

CAP: I thought that was because of the scorch marks.

ROB: Same incident. The dragon got mad when I tried to take the keys back. And then that kid starts roaring his head off about his injured dignity and how he’s going to get Parliament in on this, and everyone…Oh no.

CAP: What?

ROB: Hide me.

CAP: What??

ROB: He’s coming this way!

LENA: Rob. He has a cup of coffee and a newspaper. He’s getting a table. He’s not plotting your demise.

ROB: You don’t know that.

(Dodger passes by, his eyes on his newspaper.)

DODGER: Morning, Rob.

ROB: Morning, Jack.

(He continues on his way. Rob collapses back in his seat.)

LENA: You are ridiculous.

CAP (suddenly): What’s that on the floor?

LENA: Did he drop something?

CAP: Is that dragon dung? Because it looks like the kind that gives off that poisonous—

ROB: OKAY EVERYBODY OUT!

LENA: Excuse me, everyone, we need to evacuate, please move calmly to the exits—

(ONE WEEK LATER, a new sign:

Patrons are responsible for all damages caused by imitation bodily excretions”)

Pretty Pictures

I’m on the road today and short on computer access, but I still want to share something I learned at work last week:

The British Library has a Flickr account with tens of thousands of pictures scanned from old books and papers in their collection. There’s an album devoted to children’s book illustrations, and another one full of old cover designs, and plenty more besides. IT’S SO COOL. If you’re an illustration or design nerd like me, the whole thing is a joy. Happy scrolling!