Friday, June 29, 2007

Oh, the drama

So I actually wrote this post months ago, right about my "Acting Up" club performed its first, um, performance: The Case of the President's Laser Protected Disappearing Time Machine. And in retrospect, I have no idea why I didn't blog about the process. I think it was because we met on Fridays and afterwards, I always kind of wanted to die. Here are some highlights:

Usually, I come up with programs and then market them, but this program was actually the brainchild of two girls who come to the library every Friday to do things like check the circulation on their favorite sci-fi novels and research a family tree. And at first I kind of put them off, but they wore me down to the point that I put a handwritten sign-up sheet on the table, and told them we'd do it if they could get 10 kids to sign up. (That's the most I've ever had attend any of my brainchildren.)

There were 10 names in three days. Lesson learned.

Then I wanted to also attract kids who might not sign up for a drama club, so I created a poster that said "Don't worry--no one has to wear tights ..." and called the group the "Acting Up" club. I forgot that even middle school kids are developmentally unlikely to take things figuratively. Three boys reported for duty the first day and actually thought they were in the wrong place when someone said "drama club." They were like, "Hell no, we here to act up."

I made everything up as I went along, including rules, so we ended up with a three-part code:
  1. No flying kicks.
  1. No simulating sex with Beyonce.

  2. No questioning people's sexuality or gender.

I wanted to write one of those vote-for-who-did-it-surprise-ending-mysteries like Shear Madness or The Mystery of Edwin Drood. So I had the kids choose the setting and then the crime and then develop characters. And for setting they chose the Whitehouse, and then they wanted the crime to be the theft of the American flag from the oval office to protest the election of the first black President ... and I went upstairs and explained this to my boss, insisting that the whole thing wasn't a cover for my radical political organizing and it was all Their Idea. I admit I was a little relieved when the following week, they had changed their collective and mysterious mind and wanted the stolen item to be a time machine ... or a wheel of cheese.

Three weeks into the program, one of the stars of our play was kicked out of the library for a month. I tried to talk to him out front one day, but he just leaned against the bike rack and wouldn't look me in the eye. Apparently, he got all up in the face of one of the librarians, swearing, etc., and nothing I could do would get him reinstated until he'd done the time.

A week before the performance, while I was at ALA, one of the teen employees ran a last rehearsal, and every one of my kids showed up (including the kid who was in exile for awhile) and then every one of them got kicked out of the library. Yeah. For real.

On the day of the performance I baked 50 chocolate chip muffins (with the oven at 200 for the first 10 minutes because I'm scatterbrained); collected an assortment of hats, scarves, and props; said a prayer that the time machine would remain intact; and went to the library. Everything went swimmingly during our lightning-fast-top-secret-whispered rehearsal, except that The Scientist didn't show. I called his mom and she still had to pick him up for basketball practice.

It killed me, because this kid was brilliant. He designed the time machine, pronounced words like "perambulate" without flinching, and knew how to swear in Nigerian. But halfway through the second act, when I was in the middle of playing his role and mine (which was hard, because I kept having to change hats and switch which side of the table I was sitting on so I could interrogate myself), he showed! And the whole play stopped and the audience applauded and we went back to the beginning of Act II, and he got to take the time machine home with him.

So I'm uploading the script in case anyone really cares. I'm also mentally composing a list of things I learned that are hopefully transferrable, and I'll add that soon. I read/skimmed a number of books on teaching drama before I started the program, but I found that they were focused on the art of it, and I was just trying to get a show off the ground (art schmart). And in the end, I think I succeeded in that much. If nothing else, I made 50 muffins, right?

Telegrams from ALA Part III: Author Readings

So Monday I stalked Cecil Castellucci, who everyone apparently calls "Ceci." What's funny is that I first pegged her for one of her own fans. I was waiting for her to read at the live author's stage or whatever they were calling it (probably not that, because it begs the question, where's the dead author's stage?), and I saw this pipsqueak woman with hair died in chunks of black and whitish blue, big shoes that made tromping noises, and a black messenger bag that looked like it weighed as much as she did. I was like, Oh, that is so obviously what I would expect a Cecil Castellucci fan to look like. And then it turned out to be Cecil Castellucci.And then to add to the fact that I've been badmouthing her new book Beige, stalking her at ALA, and sporting a copy of The Plain Janes like it's a brand-name handbag, I volunteered to help her with her spontaneous reader's theater performance of The Plain Janes. I played "arty" or "main Jane." In my defense, I am a huge fan of Boy Proof and, now The Plain Janes, so it's not like I don't support her. I just also like to spy on her and hold her work to really high standards.

For those who aren't stalking Cecil, The Plain Janes is the first in a new series of graphic novels for young women--they're obvious "quick picks" with characters that will appeal to the kind of girls who let me sit at their lunch table in high school: highlighters for nail polish, Kool Ade for hair dye, black ribbons for chokers, and Tae Kwon Do masters for boyfriends. Those kind of girls. I read the entire first installment while in line to get True to the Game signed by Teri Woods. (She wrote, for the future patrons of my imaginary library, who I obviously think are theives: "Please stop stealing the books out the library. Please, OK. Believe. Teri Woods.")

Anyway, the point of this post is that I like to listen to authors read their work because then I can decide whether I would invite them to speak at my school. Which is like window shopping, becuase I don't have a school. But I would definitely invite Cecil Castellucci to my imaginary school.

I would maybe invite Carolyn Mackler, because her book The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things has universal girl appeal. I think it's the frank treatment of the relationship between Virginia and Froggy: he comes over after school to feel her up but doesn't acknowledge her in public, which she accepts because her weight makes her think she's not worthy of a more attentive boyfriend. However, Mackler was very young Mom, which is cool, but I wanted her to have more street appeal. She's the kind of person who skips over the bad words in her own novel.

I don't think I would invite Nick Hornby, even though he has a non-American accent, because I have my doubts about the appeal of Slam, his foray into YA lit. Don't get me wrong: it's a funny and totally relateable topic: teenage fatherhood. But it's also a nightmare. I mean, the part Hornby read on Monday included commentary on the way diapers smell. It's not exactly escapist literature, and I don't know how many teenage boys are scanning the shelves for a naturalistic portrait of young parenthood. (If you can call a Tony Hawk poster that transports the main character into the future "naturalistic.")

I didn't get to hear Catherine Gilbert Murdock speak/read, so I can't say if I would invite her or not. But if I had read The Off Season before I attended the conference, (instead I read 78% of it last night between 12 and 3 a.m.), I would have dropped everything and been there. Because it's one of the best books I've read this year--better than Dairy Queen. I would kill to know if Murdock had the sequel planned when she wrote the first one. Because all the issues you care about at the end of book 1 (will D.J. and Brian stay together even though they play on rival football teams? Will Amber and D.J. ever be comfortable around each other again now that Amber has confessed her crush?) seem monumentally unimportant by the end of book 2.

Because Murdock doesn't just resolve the conflicts in the first book: she rotates your perspective so that you see the conflicts from a totally different angle. You do a 180. And it's cathartic the way books about abandoned horses were cathartic when I was in third grade. Murdock makes you care about the fate of every member of this family of football-loving Wisconsin cattle farmers. And despite the fact that it's set in just the kind of setting that usually renders a book unsaleable to my urban audience (farms), I think I could get them to read it, because this girl is a brilliant athlete and there's something universal about the sports team experience. Much as I hate to admit it.

So to bring this full-circle, The Off Season is the kind of book that makes me feel OK about not really praising Beige. Because it's really important to have genuine praise leftover for the likes of Catherine Gilbert Murdock.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Telegrams from ALA Part II: Printz Awards

Look! I'm on Brotherhood 2.0! Of course, I'm sitting about 2/3 of the way back in a hall that sat, like, 300 people, so even I can't distinguish my bushy head. But I'm there.

John Green spoke at the Printz Award reception, because he was an honorable mention this year, and his speech was the second most super. The first most super was M.T. Anderson's. In fact, M.T. Anderson was the whole reason I was there, because he astounds me.
I remember book-talking Feed at Woonsocket High School: I started by saying that the story takes place in the near future, and people are getting "feeds" instealled so they can access the internet mentally. That's right: they check e-mail, chat, watch movies, listen to music, get bombarded by banner ads, etc. in their minds.

And the classful of freshmen, who had been sitting there comatose through my description of a book by Jess Mowry and The Bell Jar (which I admit was a long shot, although I said it was like Smashed or with penny loafers and electroshock therapy), reacted instantly with a chorus of "Cool! I want that!" I stared at them in amazement--they wanted the Internet in their brains? -- until finally one boy, sitting in the corner with his desk at an angle that said I am so not one of you, just spat, "Yo. That's whack."

And that sort of silenced them.

Anyway, it wasn't the reaction I was expecting, but in retrospect, I probably shouldn't have been surprised.

So M.T. Anderson's speech was so brilliant and poetic that I can't properly summarize it. I hope there's a transcript floating around somewhere. But his point was the racism isn't a thing of the past. He wrote The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. !: The Pox Party because he wanted to demonstrate how the ideas swirling around the American Revolution are still swirling and still relevant. And if you haven't read the book--it does have an intimidating title--you should know that he somehow renders the familiar American history unfamiliar--strange, absurd, exotic, and shocking. It's like a carnivale version of 1776.

He said that historical fiction sometimes makes us feel "safe and righteous": "We seem superior to the dead. For one thing, they're dead. We're alive. We must know something they don't." Then he said that the question we should ask is: "What are we doing that our grandchildren ... will look at and gasp?" And his example of something gasp-worthy was "standardized" tests. He
talked about how his girlfriend worked in an urban school where, during the week of standardized testing, number of students were shot. So how can you compare her kids' scores to the scores of safe, well-fed, comfortable middle class suburban kids? Fire off a couple rounds over their heads and then have them take the test. Then you can make comparisons.

John Green, who was honorable mention for An Abundance of Katherines, talked about the inspiration behind the Arab character in his book, a real-live roommate of his, also named Hassan. He talked about how Hassan used to rant against Fox News coverage of the war in Iraq and told this really funny story about misinterpreted graffiti that I know I'm going to screw up, so you'll just have to wait til a transcript of the speech is posted here.

I think an alternate title for the speech (not that I know what the original title is) could be "Against Narrative," because in the same way that Susan Sontag attacked the idea that images must have to say something in "Against Interpretation," I think John Green attacked the idea that stories have to make sense. He said that the problem with narrative is that we'd rather believe "lies that make sense than truth that doesn't." In other words, by creating believable stories, we make reality less believable--at a time when it's really important to face the truth.

Not that he was really attacking narrative. Just saying that we need to question it. And I may be taking this farther than he did in his speech, but obviously, it got me thinking.

Telegrams from ALA Part I: Gaming

OK, the real reason I didn't post these during ALA is because my laptop is permanently on the fritz. But pretend I was submitting these over a literal wire, and that's why they're delayed. It's so much more romantic that way.

The most compelling workshop I attended was also the one that I least wanted to have anything to do with. It was about holding a video game tournament in your library, which I had no intention of ever doing. But it was the only kid-related workshop during that time slot, and I wanted to get my money's worth.

So it turned out to be fabulous. The presenters were Eli Neiburger and Erin Helmrich from the Ann Arbour District Library, where there's a whole gaming season with eagerly awaited weekend-long tournaments for a range of ages. Not only did the presenters succeed in eviscerating my prejudice against video games in libraries, they offered a beautiful model for promoting teen programming (it's all about branding) and a plan for taking over the world.

I don't want to steal their thunder, since one of them has a book coming out next month, but check the powerpoint (in PDF) to get a glimpse of how brilliant and organized their tournaments are (People, they have commentators, post-game interviews, instant replay on the big screen ... like it's a football game or American Idol ... so cool) and check this basic "menu" of resources for getting started.

And here are my favorite points:

  • "We can't be all things to all people, but we should have something for everyone." In other words, the question isn't whether or not we should have something for gamers. It's a question of how we can most effectively serve them with our budget. And the answer is ...

  • Buy the software and equipment for game tournaments rather than building a circulating collection of video games. A single game reaches a max of 52 people a year, assuming you check it out for a week, while a tournament brings in more than 50 kids each time it's held.

  • The introduction of the wii has also made gaming more accessible. For the first time, it's bringing in seniors who want to simulate bowling--not just teens and twenties who want to crash race cars. We better get ready for the influx of new users.

  • And this was my favorite point: you don't have to know anything about gaming to start a program like this. What you do have to do is reach out to people in the gaming community--which might include local teens, college students, or people who work in another department of the library.

It was interesting, because after the workshop, there were a series of annoying questions that were all along the lines of: but what if you don't know anything about gaming? I mean, the presenters had to find 5 or 6 different ways to say: find someone in the gaming community to provide leadership.

It reminded me of the challenge of Spanish-language outreach among libraries where none of the employees speak Spanish. Still, the librarians want to come up with their own initiatives rather than letting the local community take charge. I'm beginning to believe that the secret to success if often giving up a measure of control.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Where your mouth is

I'm alittle late with this, but in case you don't read the ProJo religiously, here's a bullet point summary of the June 14 article:
  • The city and PPL signed a contract, but the city council has to approve it.
  • The city is contributing $3.3 million this year, with cost of living increases every year following.
  • They're establishing something called a Library Partnership Advisory Committee. I assume this is a variation on the theme of "Municipal Library Services Board." In the words of the article, this board will "oversee finances across the library system, though the body would have no authority over the PPL’s trustees."* So what exactly do they have authority over? City/state money? Can the trustees trump them there, too?
  • Ten people are being laid off.
  • Fox Point, Smith Hill, Olneyville, South Providence and Wanskuck will be open 28½ hours a week instead of 30, and all branches will be closed for lunch and dinner (because there will no longer be enough staff to cover breaks).
Ignore the rah-rah nut graph about "ending a years-long dispute over library service and establishing the first written agreement in the history of their 100-year relationship." Seriously, does anyone really think the problems are over?

*I hear that there's already some formula for how to populate this board, but no one can tell me exactly what it is or how people will be selected. But don't worry, there are going to be representatives of the people.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Summer Reading: Damn the man, save Isaura

My lil sis recommended Pucker, by Melanie Gideon, and it wasn't until two days after I finished reading it that I realized what made the book so disturbing. I mean, besides this part (If your name is Emily's Mom, don't read this. Seriously. It describes someone's face being burned off.):

"The top layers of my skin hung from my face like a giant sheet of wax. Cook would later tell me that I had no idea my face was aflame. I was cupping my chin as if I had just vomited and was trying to get to the bathroom before it splattered all over the floor" (28-29).

OK, so obviously, this book is about a burn victim, but it's a little more complicated than that, because, specifically, this book is about a burn victim from a distopian world called Isaura whose mother drags him through a portal to America (hospitals! McDonalds! motorcycles!). There she supports the two of them by reading people's futures from the comfort of her creepy, invalid bedroom. Then on page 5 she tells her son, now 17-year-old Thomas, that he's going to have to go back to Isaura and get something she left behind. It's actually a body part, but I don't want to get into that here.

Thomas figures he can sneak back into Isaura because Isaurians have a creepy policy of targetting desperate, suicidal, disfigured, terminally ill people and making them an offer: Come do manual labor for Isuara and we'll cure your disability. But you have to stay in Isaura. And do whatever we tell you. Forever.

Thomas crosses the border with a pair of conjoined twins, a girl whose skin can't be exposed to sunlight, an obese man, and a woman in a wheel chair. But he gets sidetracked from the mission his mother has assigned him, because as soon as his face is healed, he's hot, and all the girls want to make out with him. Except, of course, the one girl he wants.

What's so disturbing about the book is that Isaura is your classic distopia--rigid, idyllic, static. People are neatly stratified, technology is firmly resisted, and books are strictly forbidden. Everyone's "happy." It's just the kind of society whose elaborate facade is supposed to be ripped off by a noble freedom fighter to reveal the dirty machinations going on behind the scenes. But at the end of the novel, the facade is still intact. Thomas thinks the government is up to something shady, but what he perceives as a political plot turns out to be a very personal betrayal.

I don't want to spoil anything here, but I really want other people to read this and tell me if it doesn't confirm the paranoid teenage conclusions that 1) you can't change the world and 2) everyone is watching you. Not to mention, 3) your parents really did do something to ruin your life when you were about 5 years old so you should just blame all your problems on them.

That isn't exactly a criticism. I appreciate the deep pessimism of this book. In fact, I was a little disappointed that the ending wasn't even darker, as well as a little more drawn out and painful. As it is, it's the kind of book that creeps up on you, makes you a little uncomfortable, and leaves you a little dissatisfied. If I thought the author did all that intentionally, I'd be even more impressed.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Summer Reading: Rampant paranoia and other newsflashes

I don't mean to start with a disclaimer and then continue with an excuse, but damn, it's hard to write an intelligent review of a dumb book. And The Tattooed Rats by Jerry B. Jenkins is dumb. I know, I know, it's by Jerry B. Jenkins. Obviously, it's not rocket science. Jenkins probably doesn't believe in rocket science -- or evolution or contraception or affirmative action. But surely there's more to the book than the author's political agenda, right?

The Tattooed Rats imagines a near future in which Christianity is outlawed because it causes dissension, prejudice, and violence. Christians hideout in old shopping centers and underground bunkers--or they disperse themselves in terrorist-like cells and meet in secret to worship. The tattooed rats in the title are a clique/faction/cell that get "tats" and infiltrate the mental health facilities of the World Peace Alliance, the big-brother organization in charge. (The Tattooed Rats is actually the first in the "Renegade Spirit" series, and I picked it up because the second book came out last month.)

Jenkins has some clever ideas but he never develops them into interesting scenes. In fact, the narrative reads like a hack screen play: all dialogue, no setting, no exposition. On top of that, Jenkins plays cheap tricks like dropping you in the middle of a conversation that sounds like two teens talking about dating, but really, they're chatting about their relationship with Jesus. The characters are as interchangeable as the chicks in bad slasher flicks. And the more you read, the more paranoid he sounds.

This novel is part of a tradition of Christian writing that focuses on spiritual warfare, personifying the forces of evil and often pitting them against everyday characters the readers are supposed to identify with. This tradition includes brilliant allegories like The Book of the Dun Cow and Madeliene L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time Trilogy, not to mention The Lord of the Rings. But all of those books had something that Jenkins' work lacks: a compelling, vital, and chilling villain.

Jenkins' villains are Stepford wives who cook soy casseroles; neurotic teachers who forbid their students to ask questions; popular teens who can be bribed with headbands and lip gloss; frigid government agents like that sadistic woman in The Crying Game; and (my personal favorite) dinosaur-like demons who zip into human costumes to do the devil's work. That's right, Jenkins is ripping off Frank E. Peretti, the Stephen King of Christian fiction. The worst part is, the demons don't even appear until about half-way through the book.

That's why Jenkins sounds paranoid rather than prescient: his concept of evil is ridiculously didactic and reductive. He's from a clan of Christians who attack biology textbooks and contraception rather than poverty and racism. One can see why Christians and people in general feel duty bound to battle the culture around them--if by "culture" you mean violence, imperialism, the objectification of women's bodies, etc. But Jenkins wants to influence culture rather than just resist it, and that's what makes him scary.

Except I'm not scared of Jerry B. Jenkins, and I resist the urge to be, because I don't want to end up as paranoid as he is--or as confused about what's really a threat to free speech and a just society.

Just today I was on the phone with another librarian, asking her to hold Till We Have Faces for a patron at my branch. And her response is, "Oh, it always makes me nervous when people want C.S. Lewis books." Which I thought was pretty paranoid on her part. So I guess there are would-be censors on both sides of every issue. To those people, I would like to say: Books are not the enemy. Not biology text books. Not Harry Potter books. Not C.S. Lewis books. Not even these damn Jenkins books.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Roses are red/pink slips are pink/we'll be blue in July/if it's as bad as I think

Today was the day we were supposed to know what the city and PPL had decided to do. You should have seen me digging through the pile of junk mail in my front hall, looking for that pink slip. It didn't come.

But that doesn't mean I still have a job. It just means that the city and PPL missed the deadline for making a decision. Translation: all the branches will be closed in 30 days unless the city makes a move.

The "Transition Team" is meeting one more time on June 7 at 4 p.m. Meetings are open to the public ...