Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Betsy Was a ???

It’s finally release day for the new editions of the Betsy-Tacy high school books! I’m not buying copies right away, but I am re-reading the high school books in honor of the re-release.

My re-read has given me a burning question: What is up with the title Betsy Was a Junior? Thankfully, Maud Hart Lovelace did not give us Betsy Was a Freshman, Sophomore, Junior and Senior, but given that none of the other books has this type of title, why this one?

I suspect that naming the book was as difficult as reading it. Not that it’s a particularly challenging book – it’s just not the most fun of the Betsy-Tacy books. Perhaps it simply didn't evoke any other title for Maud or her publisher.

I mean, look at what happens:

  • Betsy accomplishes almost nothing she had planned to during the school year.
  • The Crowd becomes even more cliquish and alienates the rest of the school.
  • Betsy dates Dave Hunt, the strong, silent one. Whee.
  • Margaret almost blows herself up because Betsy doesn’t come home on time.
  • No Essay Contest for Betsy. No committee chairmanships for the Crowd.
  • Tony almost drifts off into perfectly-awful-land.
  • Cab’s father dies.

Valuable lessons are learned (Aber ja! Naturlich!), and there are high jinks as well, but it’s pretty depressing overall.

If you were going to give this book a different name, what would it be? Betsy and the Okto Deltas? Gang Aft Agley?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Would You Ever Challenge a Book?

It's Banned Books Week, the week when bloggers and teachers and librarians and so on bemoan attempts to ban classic literature (and sometimes less than classic literature) from our classrooms and libraries.

I'm not going to lie, Banned Books Week kind of gets me annoyed every year, for two main reasons, both of which I've probably mentioned before. One: "reading banned books" and wearing banned books jewelry and whatnot seems to make some people feel like they're actually doing something wicked and progressive. Are they? And are they just freaking out the reactionaries? Two: a lot of our objections, a lot of our shock, goes to the book challenges and the reasons for those challenges and how dare anyone try to challenge this book. But wait--isn't that any parent's right, to file a challenge? Isn't that why the schools and libraries have the system in place? Should we really object to parents exercising the right to show their opinion and displeasure? There's a difference between filing a complaint and actually going and stealing the books or coercing a librarian or principal to give them up (not that that doesn't happen sometimes). Hooray for parents taking an interest in education, even if we think it's a misplaced interest. Because what if disturbing material--say, history books with a distinct anti-immigrant or anti-Arabic bias--started creeping into our schools, and we didn't have any way of objecting? It's not like it hasn't happened before.

(In fact, it almost happened in my lifetime. When I was in eighth grade, Oregon had a ballot measure up that would have required schools to teach actively that homosexuality was abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse. 43.53% of Oregon voters voted "yes" to that in 1992. That isn't hyperbolic fear-mongering language. That's the actual text of the ballot measure. I was thirteen and my childhood probably would have ended that year anyway, but it was a profoundly scary time.)

Banned Books Week has taken on a new urgency this year that I actually share, though. The uproar over Obama's speech, Juliana Baggott's experience with a planned school visit, and Ellen Hopkins's canceled school visit are all disturbing things. This summer has been bad, and this fall may be beyond imagining--as far as lies and fear go. So I'm not just going to grumble and leave. I'm going to ask you that question I put as my post title: would you ever challenge a book?

It's easy to think "no, books are powerful learning tools, I would never be so ignorant". I'm not a parent, or a teacher, or a librarian, so my perspective is sort of detached and maybe not worth much. But to be honest? Yes, I would.

Go Ask Alice is my favorite example of the most-challenged-books. It's brought up frequently in discussion, maybe because so many people have read it. ALA says that Go Ask Alice has been challenged because it has drugs, offensive language, and sexually explicit content. I've got no issue with any of those things. Go for it. No, I'd challenge Go Ask Alice for sheer stupidity.

I've said it before: unless Go Ask Alice was being used as a cautionary tale about how authors and publishers can manipulate readers, yup. I might file a complaint if it was being used in my kid's classroom. Go Ask Alice tells lies about drug use that can be totally counter-productive. It's unrepentantly anti-gay. The writing is TERRIBLE. It claims to be a real diary, which it isn't. Why is it being used in ANY classroom? I would never, ever want it banned from the library, including the school library, or tell any kid they shouldn't read it (in fact, I'd want them to, so we could have a good laugh over it). But I think classroom time could be better used on other books, and to be honest, the idea of a teacher-sanctioned homophobic book makes me uncomfortable. (Are teachers addressing this aspect of the book? Do they even notice?) So I'd make a complaint, and mine would be added to the others on the ALA list.

A Child Called It? Amos Fortune, Free Man? The Girl Who Owned a City? Is there any book you might object to seeing in your kid's classroom, for any reason? Intellectual freedom is a more complicated concept than being A-OK with And Tango Makes Three.

Take a minute, this Banned Books Week, to consider whether you fall completely on the other side of the fence. And take a minute to be glad that we're allowed to challenge books.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Depraved Deep Valley

It's all over the place: lovely reissues of the high-school-and-beyond Betsy-Tacy books are coming out soon. People keep discovering Betsy-Tacy for the first time; just this morning I was giggling at a blogger who mentioned averting her eyes from a Wikipedia page for fear of Betsy in Spite of Herself spoilers. (It's hard to believe there was ever a time when I didn't know every word of that book.) This post is, in fact, part of a Betsy-Tacy Reissues Blog Tour. But I'm afraid you all might be getting a little tired of glowing reviews and nostalgia. (I did that before, anyway.) "We need a new angle," I said to Laurie. And she suggested something like this.


1. They drink and smoke. Gossip Girl: every room has a decanter of brandy, every party has a keg, and Chuck Bass loves a good cigar. DVHS: "Pompey has discovered wine!" Bonnie shrieked. ..."What's more, I'm going to smoke a cigarette as soon as we get to the pond."

2. They date duds just because they're handsome. Gossip Girl: okay, this is pretty much the plot of half the episodes. DVHS: "'Oh, I adore that strong, silent type.'...Betsy was rapturous. 'Really? Maybe I like him better than I think I do.'"

3. They cheat at school. Gossip Girl: Chuck pays people to take his tests. DVHS: "Know what I do when I don't have my lesson? I yawn. Clarke always has to yawn back and when she gets started she can't stop. It slows things up a lot."

4. The teachers go after students. Gossip Girl: Dan unwisely gets involved with incredibly annoying young English teacher Rachel. DVHS: "Passing mimeographed instructions for herbariums, [Mr. Gaston] asked Betsy softly, 'Has your sister left for the university?' 'Not yet,' said Betsy. She tried to throw into her tone the implication that Julia couldn't bear to leave Deep Valley because it held Mr. Gaston."

5. They get spoony. Gossip Girl: This one time, Serena kissed Nate at a party. DVHS: "And just as Julia had warned her he might, he tried to act spoony. She put her hand into her coat pocket for warmth, and his hand followed."

6. They crash parties. Gossip Girl: Dan and Serena storm the Kiss On the Lips party. DVHS: "'Say, I hear the juniors are having a dance. Strictly for juniors. Seniors are urged to keep out.'"

7. They procrastinate. Gossip Girl: Dan never gets around to writing his next New Yorker-quality short story because he's too busy flirting with lovelies. DVHS: "Betsy was scornful. 'There's no law about going to bed the night you have to make a herbarium for botany.'"

8. They pull pranks. Gossip Girl: Serena gets the janitor's key and throws an after-hours pool party at school. DVHS: "I spread the tar."

9. They have frenemies. Gossip Girl: Blair has the power to ban girls from eating yogurt on the steps of the Met. DVHS: "...the attraction she held for the opposite sex kept her from being very popular with girls...'Let one of our beaus see much of Irma and...good-by! He's gone, just as though he had been dashed against a rock.'"

10. They gossip. Gossip Girl: "What's the difference between gossip and scandal? So glad you asked. Anyone can commit a minor indiscretion and generate a day's worth of buzz, but in order for gossip to birth a true scandal it requires the right person to be in the wrong place." DVHS: "He's going around with a perfectly awful girl."


Stay tuned for my next post, "Top 10 Ways Anne of Green Gables is like Queer As Folk".

Monday, September 7, 2009

Yes, Virginia, there was YA when you were a teenager.

I have no idea why this topic heats me up so much. Maybe I've never gotten over my Ramona-like demand for precision from adults.

I keep hearing phrases along the lines of "we didn't have YA when I was a kid"--most recently among the comments to a post of Roger Sutton's about books being too long, here. (Someone else carried the torch there, I was glad to see. Also, in one of those sisterly coincidences--I was chomping at the bit to write this post yesterday but had to go to work; now I see that Laurie commented on the blog yesterday with the same point I was going to make.)

Yes, there were books specifically aimed at teenagers when you were a kid. Lots of them. This is true no matter what age you are. You might not have read them, but they were there.

I don't mean to claim that there isn't lots and lots of excellent YA today, maybe more than ever before, but there's been a lot for a long time.

One comment I hear often to make this point is that when we were kids, there was only a small YA shelf at the library(if that); this is what I found, also, at my library. Yes, these days most libraries seem to have huge YA sections. But from what I see, the difference here is largely in reclassification. If you go to your library and look at your YA shelves, you'll probably see lots and lots of books that were published before that shelf existed. Where were they before that? In the children's or "juvenile" section. That doesn't mean they weren't YA. The YA shelf at my library in the 80s and 90s seemed to be reserved specifically for books that had very explicit sex in them--but even lots of books with sex were shelved in our children's section. A House Like a Lotus, for instance. Annie On My Mind was shelved in YA, but other books with gay characters that were perhaps not so well-known were shelved in children's.

We can go back further than my youth. One of the comments in Roger's blog has an excellent list of the YA from the 70s and 80s (much of which was yes, shelved in my children's section also), and I'll let her speak for that era; I want to point out specifically Are You In the House Alone? which is definitely an "older teen" kind of book (yes, no matter when you read it), dealing as it does with teen sex and acquaintance rape and a sophisticated POV on teen dating.

I have a big collection of YA from the 1950s and 1960s. I discovered these books in middle school and devoured them and reread them and was fascinated by life back then. These books are sometimes tossed off as "malt shop books", acceptable to read only for nostalgic value. A few of them are pure fluff, but mostly they deal with serious subjects, and the very same subjects we get in YA today--I mean, yes, they talk about sex (and racism and cheating at school and failing college because you spend too much time with your boyfriend and so on). They don't use the same words, and the things kids worry about are slightly different because social mores were different.

After Pat has an argument with Tim, for instance, in First Love Farewell by Anne Emery, copyright 1958, a book about two college students:

She made her good-night kiss a special effort to show him she loved him more than ever. The trouble was, she had to make the special effort...she did not realize that she was beginning to use their love-making for special purposes: to cheer him up when he was melancholy, to reassure him when he was pessimistic about their future, to persuade him that she was deeply in love with him and that he was passionately, single-mindedly in love with her. Making love now meant that she wanted to kiss and caress him not only because she loved him, but because there was some misunderstanding that must be smoothed over, and making love as and when Tim wanted to was the easiest way to keep him content.

"You don't have to go in for a while," he whispered. "That's why we left by ten."
She pulled away. "Tim, we've got to take it easy."
He looked at her in astonishment.
"What's the matter with you? Don't you love me anymore? Don't you trust me?"
"Of course I love you, darling," she said, feeling weary that it had to be proved and asserted over and over. "But we can't go on like this indefinitely. It's getting harder all the time and --oh, I don't know. I just don't feel like being quite so--"...
"Well," he said angrily, "I guess I don't know what's going on any more. I figure if a girl doesn't want to make love, she isn't interested in a guy."...
"You know I love you, Tim. I've shown you that over and over. But tonight I just don't feel that way, somehow."

I do know that "love-making" didn't carry the same definition then that it does now, but I'm struck by how these scenes would have spoken to a variety of teens--the ones who didn't do much more than kiss AND the ones who were actually having sex. Nicely done, Mrs. Emery.

I think sometimes these books are not considered YA by people because for the most part there's nothing in them that would be too much for a middle-grade reader who happened along them--but that doesn't mean they aren't YA. All media at that time was less explicit--TV shows and movies, too. These were books written for teenagers, displaying the same kinds of characteristics that define YA today--seeking identity apart from one's parents and finding a place in society.

We can go back and back, to Seventeenth Summer published in 1942, to Anne of Avonlea, checked out by Ella and Henny (from the adult section!) just before World War 1, to The Little Colonel's Knight Comes Riding, which Betsy Ray read when she was no less than 15 in 1907. Have I got you convinced?

And I think there's another important reason YA is more plentiful now--a number of adult books published back in the day probably would be published as YA if they were written now (I Capture the Castle, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace). My mother, born in 1949, remembers loving Edna Ferber when she was a teenager; I read Show Boat at 16 and loved it, too. Ferber might have been marketed as a young adult author, these days. And it works the other way, too--let's look at my beloved Tender Morsels--Margo Lanagan has mentioned that it wasn't written as a young adult book. In 1940, it definitely would have been in the adult section. Some publisher saw a market (and, I hope, a message) for teens there. And it's still being published as both an adult and a teen book.

Perhaps what bothers me about the claim "there wasn't any YA, or at least any good YA, when I was a kid" is that besides being untrue, it derails what could be an interesting conversation--how is YA different today from how it used to be? In what ways is it similar?

Thursday, September 3, 2009


OK, so maybe this is how other people felt when the New Kids got back together? I can hardly believe this is going to be real.

The Summer Before (Babysitters Club)
Ann M. Martin
April 1, 2010

"Before there was the Baby-Sitters Club, there were four girls named Kristy Thomas, Mary Anne Spier, Claudia Kishi, and Stacey McGill. As they start the summer before seventh grade (also before they start the BSC), each of them is on the cusp of a big change. Kristy is still hung up on hoping that her father will return to her family. Mary Anne has to prove to her father that she's no longer a little girl who needs hundreds of rules. Claudia is navigating her first major crush on a boy. And Stacey is leaving her entire New York City life behind...

...in order to find new friends in Stoneybrook, Connecticut.

The Summer Before . . . is a sweet, moving novel about four girls on the edge of something big - not just the Club that will change their lives, but also all the joys and tribulations of being twelve and thirteen."

I never, ever though Ann M. Martin would write more about The Babysitters Club. And honestly, I would be a million trillion times more interested in a new book about the babysitters at 16, or 22--but that wouldn't get a "new generation reading the books we loved as girls", which I assume is the aim here.

Also, I only really started to sort of love The Babysitters Club as an adult, for sheer camp value, except for a few select titles that are really kind of awesome (Kristy's Big Day, Boy-Crazy Stacey). I've read far more of them recently than I did as a kid; I originally abandoned them when I was about eleven and couldn't take the ridiculousness anymore.

But. Still. WHAT THE WHAT? Next thing you're going to be telling me that Leonardo DiCaprio is going to be rejoining the cast of Growing Pains for a Very Special Episode.

(sorry about the Amazon link, it was all I could find, and that actually makes me wonder if this isn't some kind of very clever prank put together by female MIT students.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Negative reviews, and Catching Fire

I decided not to post a review of Catching Fire today. I didn't like it very much.

I've been thinking about whether I WOULD post a review, ever since I read it back in July--before that I was sure I would, because I was sure I would like it.

And this got me thinking about the purpose of negative reviews.

It doesn't seem like most bloggers post them; I know some don't because if they don't like a book, they don't bother finishing it. There've been several ARCs in the last couple of months that I tossed aside because I wasn't enjoying them enough to finish them and they weren't "big" enough that I really wanted to read them so I could understand what everyone else was talking about.

I got started in book-blogging when I was reading all the Newberys last summer; since I also wrote short reviews of all of them, naturally some of those reviews were negative. Getting started that way may have made me feel more comfortable with posting negative (or more often, middling) reviews. But I still don't do it much, except on Goodreads, which serves a different purpose for me.

So what's the point of a negative review? Especially of Catching Fire, which you're all going to read anyway? I would, no matter how many negative reviews I read. I wanted to find out what happened. And I hoped to replicate that "Oh, I see I'm not going to be getting any sleep tonight" experience of reading The Hunger Games.

Wait, does that mean I sometimes I do write negative reviews in order to dissuade people from reading a book? That sounds awful. Okay, about ten years ago I remember writing a post to a listserv about why exactly I hated ...And Ladies of the Club and feeling very satisified when someone wrote to me and said "Thank you for ridding me of any desire I had to ever read that book." But otherwise I... don't care what you read, don't care what books you buy, am usually happy for the authors of books I dislike if other people like them (unless said book is truly offensive to me, hello ...And Ladies of the Club).

Really, I think I write negative reviews for the most part in order to have a conversation--with myself, even if no one else. It's often in the writing of a review that I'm able to really clarify my thoughts about a book. It makes me dig deeper into the book for concrete examples of what I'm trying to say. And when I read a negative review of a book I loved, it helps me see the reasons that I thought the book was so good. Either that, or it gives me a few moments of righteous indignation--if I'm of the opinion that the reviewer's dislike is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the book--and usually results in me calling my sister to complain.

I'm not sure that anyone is interested in having that conversation about Catching Fire, based on the reaction to the Entertainment Weekly review (which had some factual errors, but don't all of our reviews, from time to time? of course, we're not being published in big magazines, but you know; anyway, I thought it was pretty much spot-on otherwise), but hey, I'm around if anyone does. In exchange, you can tell me why you thought, like, A Swiftly Tilting Planet was bad.