Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Remembrance Day

This year's Remembrance Day commemoration has focused on the 100th year anniversary of the advent of World War I -- represented, so poignantly, in the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red art installation currently seen at the Tower of London.   November 11 marks the day that the last of 888,246 ceramic poppies -- each representing a British or colonial death in the "War to End All Wars" -- is laid to rest.

I have read a number of novels set in World War I, but for me the classic and still indispensable text is All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.  Published in 1929, it is still surprisingly accessible and readable.  For the British or American reader, there is always that shock of perspective.  Rather than despise the narrator, we sympathise and suffer with him.  We root for him; we hope he can outwit the many forces which want to crush him.  There is no faceless enemy, no German "Hun", but only a young Paul Bäumer -- who was sold a jingoistic bill of goods, just like every other young man of his generation.  Although the novel describes a war dominated by trench warfare, the conditions of war seem applicable to almost any armed conflict.   Rather than excitement and glory, Paul experiences boredom interspersed with intervals of sharp fear.  Scavenging for food and cigarettes is his and every other soldier's main concern, and comradeship their only consolation.  Paul fears that the experience of war has left him fit for no other purpose and the random nature of survival alienates him from even his closest comrades.  In one sense, that is the irony of the novel.  War has often been criticised for being a soulless machine, but in this war story,  the individual's experience is the only important thing.

Although the number of 888,246 is huge and shocking, it seems worth noting that German casualties were more than twice that number.    The total casualties of the war are believed to be larger than 10 million human lives.  We honour those sacrifices even as we acknowledge the pointlessness of so many of them.   As the infographic at poppyfield.org shows, the "Great War" wasn't the war to end all wars . . . not even close.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Halloween Horror

Most of us have a reading comfort zone -- and for me, the horror genre is definitely at the margins.  I simply do not thrill to the sensation of being scared.  I do not dwell on death; I do not desire a good haunting.  It was a challenge, then, to read a long list of horror novels in October; hopefully, like any decent ghost, I've risen to it.

Lots of readers DO like to be frightened -- whether by real monsters, or imaginary ones -- and the horror genre has enduring appeal for many teenagers.   Stephen King has been widely quoted as saying that horror "allows us to safely vent our uncivilized emotions."  Since King stands as one of the best-selling authors of all time, he has clearly tapped into something quite potent.  I tried to read King's famous novel Pet Sematary, partly because he considers it to be his most frightening novel, but I couldn't bring myself to read the ending.  I could guess where he was going, and I really didn't want to go there.  Of the many horror novels I did manage to read, and that list ranges from the contemporary to the classic, the following two managed to convince me that I did rather like horror after all. 

Dark Matter, by Michelle Paver, is a horrifically effective ghost story because it plays on such very common fears:  the fear of being outcast, and the fear of being alone.  The author takes a character who has been orphaned, and then marginalized in a number of ways, and then she really ramps up the psychological suffering.  Fear of the dark?  Fear of being left out in the cold?  Imagine being stranded on a remote island in Arctic Norway with only a tortured ghost for company.  If you like a dark-night-of-the-soul kind of story, this one is highly recommended.  It is sophisticated, subtle and suitable for both young adults and the 18+ crowd.

The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey, is another scary story that has really stuck with me.  Definitely not for the squeamish, but if you have a strong stomach, then have I got the perfect book for you.  I've read some of Darren Shan's most popular books, and in my opinion, Yancey takes gory and gruesome to a new level.  I particularly enjoyed the voice of the 12-year-old orphan who narrates this book.  Apprenticed to an OCD scientist-cum-monstrumologist, young Will Henry is strangely matter-of-fact about the challenges of his unusual job.  Another pleasure is the 19th century New England setting.  It simply oozes Gothic atmosphere, whilst putting the novel's rather extreme horror elements at a comfortable remove.

Visit the TRAC website for more recommended reads.
Check out the complete Halloween Horror list.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Mother/Daughter Book Club: Graceling Realm series

For several years I was involved in moderating Book Clubs for 11-13 year-olds.  Initially, the idea of the Book Club was purely academic; a small group of mothers wanted their children to be reading more extensively as they prepared for scholarship exams.  Over time the Book Club concept evolved into a more general idea of enrichment, and what I learned was that the children seemed to benefit the most if their mothers read alongside them.

How do you encourage lifelong reading habits in your children?
Reading research and my own experience (as both teacher and mother) would recommend three broad strategies.  First, read to your children; second, let them observe you reading regularly; third, read alongside them.  There's no great secret or trick -- just perseverance.  Of course, it does help if you have a sincere love of reading!

So many adolescents fall out of the habit of pleasure reading, but parents can really make the difference.  This August, the Financial Times ran an article about the growing popularity (and sales figures) of young adult literature.  Gillian Tett, the author, pointed out that "as this young adult literature becomes more subtle and multifaceted, the boundaries between 'adults' and 'teen' literature are collapsing as well".   Tett concluded her article by suggesting that reading young adult literature together might even "help some parents and teens to connect with each other a little better this summer".

My 16 year-old daughter and I read many books "alongside" each other this summer, but absolutely hands-down our mutual favourite was Kristen Cashore's Graceling Realm series.  This fantasy trilogy is widely appreciated by American readers, and regularly makes "best" and "favourite" lists, but it truly deserves a wider UK reading audience.  Beautifully written, original and brave, this series puts young women at the centre of the story in a way that is rare.  The three novels -- Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue all feature a female protagonist.  (The books are separate stories, but cleverly interconnected.  Unlike most trilogies, you do not have to read all three to get plot resolution and emotional pay-off.)

Of course, there are many books in which a young woman is the main character, and perhaps the difference is only subtle, but these female characters are in command of their own destinies.  They have extraordinary physical strength (Katsa in Graceling), mental strength (Fire) and emotional strength (Bitterblue), but what they all share is a particular toughness that enables them to make difficult decisions -- but not without a cost.  These books send the message that growing into your own powers isn't easy, and that no one should expect it to be.

Although the novels are set within a fantasy world, there are no fairy tale conventions of "love at first sight" and "happily ever after" in these emotionally realistic stories.  The protagonists experience real, complicated love that grows (usually not smoothly) out of friendship and mutual respect.  If that sounds a bit dull, it's really, really not.  Quite unusually for fantasy, or indeed any other young adult literature, these novels also have a sophisticated, realistic attitude to sexuality -- including the practical matter of birth control.

But really, love and partnership are just one aspect of these stories -- not the be-all, and certainly not the end-all.  These three women are all leaders, and they must make complicated decisions that are not without personal sacrifice.   Without giving too much of the plot away, this fantasy series strongly suggests -- and yes, the idea still feels slightly revolutionary -- that women's destinies may include options other than being a wife and/or mother.  And that is by not choice, not default.

I feel sure that I am not the only mother who worries about the constant barrage of mixed messages that our daughters are exposed to, particularly through social media.  It's a narcissistic, selfie-driven age, and it often seems like physical appearance and "presentation" are what really matters.  There is social pressure to not be too smart or too strong.  It can be so difficult to talk openly to our daughters, but reading books together can be an important way of getting a message across, encouraging debate -- of even just having a conversation.

Graceling featured on TRAC's recently published "fantasy" list for recommended reading.  Visit the TRAC website or this link for the full list.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Books Are My Bag


Did you visit a bookshop on Saturday?

Saturday, October 11 was a day for celebrating bookshops in the UK.  It was the second annual  Books Are My Bag campaign launch; a day promising 'An Author in Every Bookshop'.  Unlike most other book events, this campaign is a collaboration between publishers, bookshops and authors.

According to the BOOKS ARE MY BAG website, "56% of all book buying decisions are made by consumers in a bookshop and high street bookshops (both chains and independents) still account for almost 40% of books bought by consumers. Yet, many high street bookshops are under threat."
Most of us will acknowledge that there are times when the convenience of Amazon wins the day (and book-buying pound), but there is something special about the book-browsing experience that just can't be duplicated in an online transaction.  Some of the bookstores which regularly get my business are Daunt Books and Foyle's Bookshop in London, Blackwell's in Oxford, Madhatter Bookshop in Burford -- and of course my nearest Waterstones.  In the past five months, I've read between 60-70 Young Adult novels and a sizeable percentage of those were purchased as a direct result of scanning bookshelves and beguiling 'feature' tables.  If you want to interest your child in reading, the nearest bookshop is the way to start.

I couldn't make it to the bookshop on Saturday, but I visited my local Waterstones today -- and the Tracey Emin designed book bag is still on offer.  I also picked up a few intriguing titles for TRAC's "War-Torn Worlds" book list, coming in November.  If you, too, missed Saturday's events do remember that it is always worth visiting a bookshop.  They absolutely rely on Christmas book sales; and of course, a book is always the right size.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Banned Book Week

Today is the final day of Banned Book Week (Sept 21-27) in the United States – an annual event sponsored by the ALA (American Library Association) and many other educational and publishing groups, including NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) and the NCAC (National Coalition Against Censorship). 

Every year the ALA publishes a list of the Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books, and in 2013 Dav Pilkey once again won the top spot:   the dubious distinction of having the most challenged book(s) with his hugely popular, best-selling Captain Underpants series.   For many, this will seem like rank absurdity – much like the books themselves.  Aimed at 9-12 year-old boys, this series is prank-pulling potty humour in which the ‘heroes’ invariably triumph over their mean teachers.  One of the reasons cited for challenging the books is that they are ‘unsuited for the age group,’ although their extreme popularity would seem to belie this assertion.  Indeed, these books deliver exactly the kind of humour (and sense of subversive empowerment) that most appeals to a huge majority of this age group.    Depending on your viewpoint, the books are enjoyably irreverent – or deeply disrespectful of adult authority figures. 

Censorship of educational material, particularly books being taught by classroom teachers or available from school libraries, is an ongoing battle in the culture wars of the United States.  The number of skirmishes can vary from year to year, but the intensity of feeling on both sides does not really change.  Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, the UK has nothing comparable – neither the efforts to censor children’s and YA books, nor the organised resistance to this censorship.   Certainly it has nothing to do inherently with the content, as UK authors such as JK Rowling and Philip Pullman feature prominently on the US parental complaint lists.   In the decade of 2000-2009, the Harry Potter series was #1 on the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list and Pullman’s His Dark Materials series took the #8 spot.  Those books are primarily criticised for their portrayal of ‘occult’ magic (Harry Potter) and religious viewpoint (His Dark Materials), and certainly that would not surprise UK readers who may view the United States as a hotbed of religious nutters.  Indeed, a 2010 BBC article suggests that the fact that the UK is a "less religious society" accounts for the more relaxed attitude towards children’s literature.

Contrary to this evidence, religious viewpoint is actually way down on the list of reasons why books tend to be challenged by parents.    The three most common challenges, by far, are:  (1) sexually explicit; (2) offensive language; and (3) unsuited for age group.

As I was perusing recent lists of Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books, I was surprised to find Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (pub. 1970) in the #2 spot on the 2013 list.  I had read this novella in a university English class and it made a huge impact on me.  Of all the books we read that year, I remember this slim volume attracting the most debate.   There is plenty of emotionally tough content in this book, particularly the abuse and neglect of 11 year old Pecola Breedlove.  Pecola is raped by her father and becomes pregnant by him.   Not comfortable reading by a long chalk, but what really makes this scene controversial is the omniscient narrator’s unusual sympathy for the father.  The theme of the book is cultural racism so pervasive that it becomes internalised, hardening into self-hatred and madness.  Toni Morrison is the most literary and poetic of authors; she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.   Like all truly gifted writers, she has that ability to transform a reader’s understanding of her chosen subject matter, no matter how removed it might be from the reader’s own experience and consciousness.  Surely this is one of the primary reasons that we read?  The U.S. Department of Education thought so, and it included this book on its Common Core suggested reading list for 11th grade students.  (The 11th grade corresponds to the Lower Sixth year in the British school system.  In age-related terms, this book was proposed reading for 16/17 year olds.)  Many American parents did not agree with this professional advisement, though.  Parents in states such as Colorado, North Carolina and Ohio (the author’s home state) demanded that their school boards remove the book from the curriculum.  The sexual content was cited, and certainly that fact is incontestable, although it ‘reads’ differently in context; the really grey area, though, is the oft-cited ‘unsuited for age group’.   That is a judgement call, and it is one that many parents feel is their entire right to make – not just for their own child (or young adult), but other children as well.

In general, I have no sympathy whatsoever with the book-banning crowd.  It makes my blood boil that To Kill a Mockingbird – a book that has done more than perhaps any other to promote a cultural sensitivity and understanding of racism – is accused itself of racism, and still manages to rank #21 on the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books of the last decade.  And yet, as a teacher and parent I have often had to make judgement calls about what is appropriate reading for a given age group and there is definitely not any ‘one size fits all’ ruling on these matters.

When the Trustees of TRAC began working on a core book list for teenagers, we debated the advantages and disadvantages of including age guidelines and content warnings.  As difficult as it is to prescribe books for an unknown reader – given how we may vary so much in terms of life experience, not to mention emotional and intellectual maturity – some broad guidelines still seemed preferable to none.  And despite ongoing efforts to control what is read in specific school systems,  the truth is that this kind of cultural ring-fencing is at odds with the general trend of YA publishing – not to mention the broader culture.  Sexual content, violence and strong language are more common than ever, most notably in realistic fiction.  For decades, Judy Blume has been a whipping boy for censorship due to her frank treatment of themes like sexual development and bullying.  Frankly, Judy Blume’s work – and four of her novels still made the last decade’s 100 list -- seems pretty tame by contemporary standards.  Referring back to the controversies surrounding The Bluest Eye, it is difficult to imagine that there are many teenagers of 2014 who haven’t been exposed to knowledge of sexual violence.  In recent weeks, the biggest story in the US news was domestic violence in the NFL (National Football League).  It is difficult to believe that many 16-year-olds really need to be 'protected' from this kind of knowledge; what is more likely is that they need to be educated about it.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Who is this blog for?

Last spring I was interviewing the librarian at my daughter's secondary school and she related how difficult it was to engage her students in pleasure reading.  Despite having a beautiful space to read in, and thoughtfully chosen and arranged books, it doesn't even occur to a large number of students to take advantage of this resource.  So many young teens enter their senior schools with a pleasure reading habit, and gradually, they lose it -- sometimes, altogether.  The relentlessness of the exam schedule causes many to jettison all but required reading; unfortunately, our education system often squashes the independent learning behaviours it ideally wants to encourage.

There is a prodigious wealth of reading research demonstrating that pleasure reading is vital "for both educational as well as personal development" (National Literacy Trust), and yet so many teenagers lose the reading habit just when they need it most.

Question a teenager about his or her non-reading habits and you will invariably get this response:  I'm too busy to read.  And yet, these same busy teens invariably have time to binge-watch trash television and Netflix, not to mention Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Whats App, Tumblir, You Tube and whatever else is fashionable in their social networking world.

With that in mind, our ultimate goal at TRAC is to find teens where they live -- which seems to be on their smart phones, tablets and laptops.  We are in the process of developing a web application that will connect teens to the books they would enjoy reading -- whilst simultaneously allowing them to directly purchase the desired book or download it in e-book form from their local library.

Who is this blog for?
TRAC wants to connect directly with teens, but as we develop, we realise that we will probably be communicating with parents.

For many years I have been the person that friends turn to with the general question of what should my child be reading?   Or sometimes, more specifically, what do you recommend for ____?

Some readers will seek out books on their own, and the hunting grounds of bookstore, library and online sellers are familiar territory for them.  Other teens, including my own adolescent daughters, need to have a book placed directly in their hands.  I read about this book (or even better, I read this book) and I think you would really like it.

I truly think that anyone can be a reader, if given the right book at the right time, but can that personal approach ever be duplicated in virtual form?

I suspect that I will be preaching to the converted -- the audience of parents who would like their teenagers to read for pleasure, and hopefully some interested teenage readers -- but the agnostic, the curious and the random visitor are most welcome.