Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Sucker for E-Books

100 Scope Notes writes about e-books today. He's taking a wait-and-see approach and asks where we are with e-books; my comment turned into a post of its own. (And I almost titled this post "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love E-Books", but luckily I didn't, because... that's the title of the 100 Scope Notes post, which I hadn't noticed.)

I started reading e-books about five years ago when I had to get a Palm Pilot for nursing school. I discovered that I could download books from Project Gutenberg for free, and read many, many forgotten old books (no classics for me, thanks! I'd rather read Patty in Paris and The Campfire Girls Go Motoring) on that tiny screen. I went to Europe for two weeks that year and instead of taking one book and trying to parcel out the reading, I took dozens and was able to read whatever and whenever I felt like. (At this point people say "Well, if I was in Paris, I wouldn't be doing much READING"--hogwash. There's two long long flights to get through, Paris has trains like anywhere else, and I always do a lot of reading at night when I'm on vacation, once I'm too tired to keep going but it's still, like, 8 PM.)

Now that I've finally started to get over the feeling that we count our wealth in books--that I don't need to buy every used book I see that happens to be something I enjoyed--though I'm still struggling with the idea that if I don't have enough books, people will walk into my apartment and think I'm not a reader--I've started to like e-books even more. My local library is underfunded and unimpressive, and this year doesn't carry many of the new children's and YA books I want to read. So I've been buying more new books than ever before. And I'm buying them in "e" form. I'm not going to want to keep most of them, and I don't want them cluttering my apartment, and they're slightly more affordable.

I kept feeling a rosy glow when I bought an e-book, thinking that I was helping to sustain the author and publisher, but I was concerned that maybe the glow shouldn't be so rosy. I wondered whether authors really made much from the sale of e-books--was this like that writer's strike business, where the screenwriters were making squat from Internet downloads of TV and movies? I asked about this on twitter, and my understanding is that while authors make less from e-book sales, that's more because they cost less than because they're being cheated. Since I wouldn't buy all these books in hardcover--there's no way--I keep feeling rosy.

The downside is that I'm buying these from Barnes and Noble (since I don't have a "device" and read them on my computer, the tiniest of netbooks) instead of an independent bookstore. If there's somewhere else I ought to be buying from, do let me know.

My good friend CLM of Perfect Retort, whose apartment was blissfully wall-to-wall books last time I visited it ten years ago, asks about rereads. I'm happy to buy hard copies of books I want to read over and over, just as I always have. For me, that isn't a change at all--it used to be extremely rare for me to purchase a new book I hadn't already read; I only did it in the case of an author I knew I loved, or perhaps something deeply discounted on the sale table that looked interesting, but even then almost never. (I know that eventually hard copies will become proportionally more expensive, as fewer are produced, but it'll be something I'm willing to pay for.) People often mention that it isn't as cozy to curl up with an e-book as it is with a "real" book; for me, if I want to be cozy, I'm choosing one of those "I've read this more times than I can count" books I own anyway. And I've never been one to take books into the bath with me. (Shudder! Didn't you all see the instructional film in elementary school about how sad it is when books get wet?)

I do keep some of the e-books I buy, though. And I still mourn the passing of my Palm Pilot--I don't have an IPhone--because being able to read a snippet of Rilla of Ingleside anytime I happened to be caught in line was delicious.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Season of Gifts and Racism: one more round

There's been tons and tons and tons of discussion about whether Richard Peck's newest book, A Season of Gifts, is racially insensitive. (I know many of you have heard a lot about this, but since I've discovered that a lot of my readers are not regularly blog people and -- gasp! -- don't know about every blog controversy that comes along, a summary: this book takes place in the 1950s; there's a new Methodist preacher in town who's having trouble getting people to come to his church; to drum up publicity, his neighbor Grandma Dowdel pretends to have found the skeleton of an "Indian princess" in her garden and gets the preacher to stage a Christian burial with accompanying media frenzy.)

Let's get one thing straight: yeah, the bones are fake. There's no doubt about it. Only a "but the bones are fake!" defense doesn't wash with me. I'm also not going to say it doesn't make a difference that the bones were fake. The difference is just that it would be WORSE if the bones were real.

Yes, Jonathan Hunt et al, I get that Richard Peck was making fun of white people and their obsession with all things "Native American". But digging up American Indian bones and re-burying them in white Christian cemeteries?

Dude. That's not something to joke about*. It's disrespectful to use something like that as a way to make this mild sort of point, especially in a book that is not ALL about the white obsession with Indian mysticism, because come on, it's not like the white people don't come out on top in this book. They're a little silly in their reaction to the "Kickapoo princess", but they're also down-home good people.

Okay, but what surprises me: in all of the discussions of this book I've read, I can't remember anyone mentioning the part where Richard Peck makes an effort to show that he knows this might come off as being disrespectful. Because the sermon the minister gives is all about how great the Indians who used to live on that land were. Yes, Debbie Reese, I'm using "used to" and "were" on purpose, because that's how they're presented here. "The stewards of this land that now we till" and "How lightly her people lived here/In the seasons' ebb and flow;/May we leave this land as lovely/When it's our own time to go."

He tries, Richard Peck does. He knows that American Indians are more than mascots and "princesses" and headdresses. But this sermon--it's nice. It could be worse. The insensitivity of the book would be worse if it were left out altogether. But what it does is make the people of the town, and the Caucasian reader, feel good. It's okay that the local Indians are gone; they lived a good life and now it's our turn. It was their "time to go".

When, you know, it actually wasn't.

Now, when I first heard about this issue on Roger Sutton's blog, I commented "oops, there goes A Season of Gifts's Newbery nod". But now that I've read it, I don't think this book is Newbery-quality, anyway. It's well-written stylistically, because Richard Peck is a writing master, but the plot and characters are most thin. I don't think it's distinguished or that it adds anything special either to this trilogy (the first two books are excellent; one is a Newbery Honor and the other a Newbery) or to children's literature.

*Always allowing that I could find a joke about this really, really funny if it were done well and made an important point.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Oops! I Didn't Mean To Say That.

I was talking with the lovely author Laurel Snyder recently about her book, Any Which Wall (a thoroughly modern Edward Eager homage I enjoyed very much). I can’t remember how we got on the subject, but she mentioned that after it was published, she found things she wished she had written differently; I think she said she even has notes in her copy about what she would have changed.

I’m sure this is common among writers. “Actually, some authors really do that,” I told her.

Madeleine L’Engle was the first one who came to mind. Her first young adult novel, And Both Were Young (it’s really good--takes place in a Swiss boarding school, lots of fun stuff about skiing), was published in 1949. In 1983, she released a newly-edited version, which, she says in the foreword, is more accurate to the book she wrote. The 1949 editor insisted she tone down the main character’s grief over her mother’s death, the gentle romance between the teenagers, and the woman who’s after Philippa’s widower father.

I’ll be honest: I like the original a lot better. And when I say “original”, I mean what was published first. I think it’s sharper, clearer, more even in tone. Of course, it’s also what I read (and internalized: I read it many times) first.

I’m not sure how many times L’Engle did this in smaller ways. When I was re-reading a new-to-me copy of her book The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas, I kept thinking “huh. I don’t remember it that way”. On comparison, I discovered several small differences in the text between the edition of this book I knew and the one I own now. I don’t know why L’Engle or the editors might have made these changes, or which is the original, or which L’Engle might say was more authentic.

PL Travers did it in Mary Poppins. She has a chapter where Jane, Michael, and Mary Poppins go time/space traveling with the help of a compass. They visit the four corners of the world, and meet stereotypical people from the north (“Eskimos”), south (Africans), east (Chinese people), and west (American Indians, or, as many people in England call them even now, “Red Indians”). The chapter is charming in structure, but the stereotypes are awful. They’re worse than what you’re imagining right now. In 1981, Travers revised the chapter completely, having them meet animals in each corner instead. The writing isn’t as good as it was in the original, which is unfortunate but not surprising. When this chapter of Mary Poppins comes up in discussion, I always ask the same question: if you were the author, wouldn’t you be embarrassed? Wouldn’t you welcome the chance of a rewrite? (Amazingly, the original illustrator, Mary Shepard, was also around to do new illustrations for the chapter.) And Roald Dahl did something similar for the American edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; for some reason that’s not as well-known, though the book is more famous. In the original, the Oompa Loompas are pretty much happy lazy African slaves. I’m not kidding.

Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature has an interesting post discussing a passage from the book Dear Genius, in which editor Ursula Nordstrom talks about a small change Laura Ingalls Wilder agreed to make to a new edition of Little House on the Prairie--agreed wholeheartedly. While I don’t agree with the suggestion that the publisher might have stopped publishing the book entirely instead, I think it’s an interesting point to wonder what else Wilder might have changed in this book and her other books. Certainly her intent was never to depersonalize American Indians.

What else might Madeleine L’Engle have changed in her books? Did she mean for A House Like a Lotus to be underminingly homophobic? I don’t really think so. After she became a Christian, did she think back on her early books and wish she had written things differently? Would Jean Webster take the eugenicism out of Dear Enemy (sequel to Daddy Long Legs)? Would Ann M. Martin surgically remove Mallory Pike from the Babysitters Club? (Actually, she did eventually send Mallory to boarding school, to the great relief of all.)

We’ve posted recently about the ways Scholastic Book Fairs has asked authors to edit their books to make them “safe” for the school market. (Laurie pointed out elsewhere the funniest example of this: in Lois Lowry’s Anastasia On Her Own, Freddie Valente is changed in the [edit: not Scholastic's fault this time] Weekly Reader edition from a bra-snapper to a hair-puller. I guess bras are mature content, just like gay parents.) Laurie urged authors not to make changes in content after their books are published, at least not for Scholastic Book Fairs’s reasoning. What do you think? When is it okay for an author to change something, and when should the book be let stand as is?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Scholastic censors Luv Ya Bunches

The headlines last week read:
Luv Ya Bunches Will Be in Middle School Book Fairs
Scholastic reverses decision regarding 'Luv Ya Bunches'
Scholastic to Sell 'Luv Ya Bunches' at Middle School Book Fairs
Scholastic Reverses Decision to Exclude Gay Friendly Book from Fairs

An accurate headline, though, would read: Scholastic Sells Censored Luv Ya Bunches in Middle School Fairs; Refuses to Include Gay Parents in Elementary Schools.

Luv Ya Bunches is about fifth graders. Publishers Weekly recommended it for ages 9-13. Clearly it is intended for both elementary and middle school students.

Let's talk a little about book fairs. Scholastic dominates the U.S. school book fair market. From 2003-2007 I hosted a Scholastic book fair at my middle school (continuing the previous librarian's tradition). On the appointed date the deliverymen wheel in giant carts that open to become book displays. The middle school fairs offer certain titles, which have been advertised in advance to students via posters and book fair brochures. The books, published by Scholastic and other publishers, range from paperback classics to brand-new releases. Schools can make special requests; I always asked for more multi-ethnic books to reflect the interests and diversity of my students. The person in charge of the book fair can choose to remove items from the display if they don't want to sell them. Most librarians I know do: expensive software, toys with small parts, books you don't think students are interested in might stay packed in boxes. At my last Scholastic fair I didn't display the posters for sale, because space was tight and I wanted to focus on books.

My point is that with any book fair, including Scholastic, you can choose what to offer from the books provided. No school is forced to offer a book for sale.

If you (librarians or book fair chairs) live in a community that is so homophobic that parents will protest a book with gay characters, and you are not willing to take a stand and offer the book, you don't have to. But Scholastic Inc., whose credo says they strive "To enlarge students' concern for and understanding of today's world," should not pander to this homophobic constituency by refusing to offer Luv Ya Bunches or other books with gay characters in its elementary school book fairs.

Michael A. Jones of writes, "This was a victory for us all." I see no victory. Scholastic Book Fairs concluded their review process and decided to include an expurgated edition of Luv Ya Bunches in its middle school book fairs. This may be what they were already going to do before last week's outcry. It represents no brave stance on the part of Scholastic, despite what Lauren Myracle claims. Here's what needs to happen to achieve a real victory.

School librarians/Teachers/PTA (anyone who hosts a book fair in a school)
: Look into other options, such as local independents, for book fairs to reduce Scholastic's corporate monopoly. With any book fair (Scholastic or otherwise), be sure to request age-appropriate books that include LGBT characters. Let the book fair provider know that these books are both welcome and necessary in your school book fair to meet the needs of your community.

Scholastic Inc.:
1) Make your book fair criteria public and transparent. Are books with gay characters automatically excluded from elementary school? Sometimes excluded? As a customer of Scholastic Book Fairs (both as a school librarian and as a parent of an elementary-school child), I want an answer.
2) Apologize for asking Lauren Myracle to change the sexual orientation of characters in Luv Ya Bunches. Yes, you have a review process and you can only include a small number of books in the fairs each year. You can exclude books; it's your choice. But there is NO EXCUSE for asking to change gay characters to straight. NONE. You made a big mistake. Apologize, and make a donation to Lambda Legal or some other organization that helps families.

Authors: Do not agree to Scholastic Book Fairs or anyone else censoring your book. You wrote your book a certain way--maybe with hell, damn, Oh my God--because you, and your editor, believed it was right for your book. If it's not right, take it out in the editing stage. If it is right, DON'T CHANGE IT. This is disrespectful, dishonest, and deceptive to your readers. You can't champion the freedom to read while you are agreeing to sanitized versions of your own books.

Three weeks ago another librarian and I were talking about how there are quite a few picture books with gay characters, and more YA books all the time, but very few novels with gay characters for readers in grades 4-8. I mentioned Dear Julia by Amy Bronwen Zemser as a good new example: the main character's best friend has two moms. Children need these books. We need to keep the pressure on.