Monthly Archives: April 2014

Staff Review: The Great Greene Heist

FC9780545525527The Great Greene Heist

Varian Johnson

Arthur A. Levine Books

$16.99

Available May 27, 2014

Jackson Greene has worked diligently for the past four months to rehabilitate his reputation after the Kelsey Job — or the Mid Day PDA as everyone else at Maplewood Middle School likes to call it. Getting caught kissing Katie Accord outside Principal Kelsey’s office was never part of the plan and Jackson is usually an excellent planner (Rule #1: No matter how simple a job looks, always plan before you act). That particular job was supposed to go differently. It wasn’t supposed to alienate his best friend Gaby de la Cruz. And it definitely wasn’t supposed to end with him losing cell phone privileges and having weekly meetings interrogations with the principal. Jackson, understandably, isn’t keen to plan any more cons. He’s retired.

Then Jackson discovers that Keith Sinclair is running against Gaby for student council president. Keith’s idea of student governing is to funnel the budget to his own interests, effectively shutting down Botany Club, Tech Club, Chess Team, Art Geeks, the school newspaper. Besides, the deadline for applicants has passed, so why exactly is Dr. Kelsey willing to bend the rules on Keith’s behalf? Jackson — Botany Club member and basketball player — starts to gather a crew: Charlie (Gaby’s twin brother and editor of the Maplewood Herald), Hashemi Larijani (member of the Tech Club and Star Trek fan), Bradley Boardman (Art Geek member and guidance office helper), Victor Cho (Chess Team member, with a surplus of cash), and Megan Feldman (Tech Club President, science whiz, Cheerleader, and Klingon speaker). With Jackson, always in his trademark red tie — skewed slightly to the left — at the helm, the crew has three weeks to pull off the greatest heist Maplewood Middle School has ever witnessed in order to ensure that the student council elections stay fair and honorable.

Teachers and Librarians, make sure to add Varian Johnson’s fantastic new book to your libraries. It is a fast-paced adventure, perfect for middle-grade readers who like school stories, mysteries, and appreciate a touch of style. Jackson is smart, classy, and a fantastic new character. Here’s hoping that The Great Greene Heist is just the beginning of Jackson’s stories.

 

UPDATE: I was DELIGHTED to read Kate Messner’s post about The Great Greene Heist today entitled “More Than Words: A Challenge for everyone who’s been asking for more diversity in kids’ books.” She issues this call to action, “Speaking up is one great way to ask for change. But buying books may be an even better way.” Her suggestion? Pre-order a copy of The Great Greene Heist from your local independent bookstore.

The Great Greene Heist is such a fantastic book that I couldn’t be more excited to support this book and this cause. In the meantime, Eight Cousins has issued a friendly challenge to Odyssey Books in South Hadley, MA to see which store can sell the most copies of The Great Greene Heist before June 11. The call is out to other bookstores (Thanks, Shannon Hale!) to participate in this challenge. I hope you will purchase a copy of The Great Green Heist at whatever your local bookstore happens to be because it’s awesome and because diversity in kids’ books matters. But I also hope you will consider pre-ordering it at Eight Cousins to help us kick Odyssey Books in the pants win the challenge.

 

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Glass Houses

BookCon recently announced that John Green would be headlining at the NYC event in May. Not surprising, John Green has been the next big thing for some time now. If you’re wondering whether it’s deserved, I’d say it is. His books are fantastic. We at Eight Cousins all love them. The problem, however, is that BookCon has already been called out on it’s all white, mostly male line up. There was a tremendous outcry a few weeks ago when a panel of ‘hot shots in children’s books’ (not the official title) panel was announced consisting of Rick Riordan, Lemony Snicket, Jeff Kinney, and James Patterson. Again no questions there, all four are best sellers, prominently marketed, all have books that have become movies and, yes, we sell tons of their books. Their books are also quite good.

The biggest problem comes down to institutionalized racism, and I’m not going to address that question here, because it’s too big and too vague.

Another problem is why didn’t the Book Con organizers simply seek out authors of color to include in the lineup? That’s where I start to feel really uncomfortable. Because I cannot even begin to cast stones. I’m working on our summer event schedule now and it, too, is lacking in diversity. Events are scheduled in a variety of ways. Some are requests that I’ve made, because I loved a particular author’s book, some are because of proximity — “hey! author x has friends on the Cape and can swing by!” — some are requests from the publisher, some have connections to the store, some are random. And yet when I step back and look at the whole line up, I see a very disturbing pattern.

I’m not just discovering the bias in our events. It’s actually something I’ve known about for a while, so I won’t claim ignorance (which is not an acceptable excuse anyway). When I started to write this blog post a few days ago, I found myself spiraling very quickly. I became very aware of a certain amount of navel gazing, defensiveness, justification, hand-wringing, all of which comes down to discomfort and fear. Discomfort because I became acutely aware of my own contributions to the bigger problem. Fear because taking steps to correct my actions will require exposing myself criticism. And now we’re back to discomfort, because how did I make this about me and my discomfort?

Book Riot posted an excellent response to BookCon entitled, “What BookCon Should Be Saying.” The line I most appreciate is this one, “Of course we realize that including authors of color now might seem to be insincere tokenism. Unfortunately, our failure to include authors of color to this point makes it impossible for us to dismiss such charges. All we can do is start doing the right thing, right now.” Apologize. Promise to do better. Do better. I get it Book Riot. Thank you.

I’m sorry for not making a more concerted effort to create an inclusive event schedule this summer. Publicists, authors, illustrators, sales reps, Falmouth community, please help me to do better.

 

It’s not you, it’s me.

A few weeks ago Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers wrote columns about diversity in children’s literature for the New York Times. If you haven’t read these articles yet, you can find them here and here. I read these articles with great interest and agreed with the points that were being made. There are serious issues surrounding diversity in publishing and, of primary interest to me, children’s publishing. I’ll admit that I read the articles with a bit of melancholy. They generated a lot of immediate interest, reposting, and conversation, but I wondered if it would last. Were these articles going to epitomize another moment when people in the publishing industry cry out, “Yes, we need more diversity!” and then go back to business as usual? A few weeks later however, I am staggered and very excited that the conversation is not only continuing, but also growing.

There was a round-table discussion of booksellers at ABA’s recent Children’s Institute in San Antonio. Booksellers addressed many of the problems, but also discussed what positive steps we could make. These proposals were taken back to ABA headquarters and I look forward to seeing some of these initiatives being addressed throughout the country. I also see articles every day by authors, illustrators, publishers, booksellers, parents, librarians, children’s lit scholars, people from ACROSS the industry continuing to talk about diversity in publishing. The problem I have however, is that we often get stuck at identifying the problems. We all know that publishing does not adequately reflect the diversity of our country. Just look at this graphic from 2012; the discrepancy is undeniable.

Diversity2012

Diversity in Children’s Books 2012

Identifying the problem isn’t enough. But then we start to talk about who is to blame. I don’t want to reiterate these conversations here, because they are too much of a trap. If you can put blame off onto the nameless, faceless market, or publishing industry, then you don’t have to actually deal with it. But the publishing industry is neither nameless nor faceless. It is made up of booksellers whom I consider to be my friends, absolutely lovely people at publishing houses I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting over the past couple of years including editors, art directors, sales directors and representatives, not to mention authors and illustrators who are often just as amazing in person as you think they should be based on reading or seeing their books. Publishing isn’t a machine; it is a community populated by individuals. And from where I stand most of these individuals do care. We care about diversity. We care about kids. We care about books. We care about making the world a better place; we think that books are fantastically fun vehicles to engage with the world and that, yes, books have the power to change the world.

Hearing the problems is depressing. Blaming the industry or the market fails to help anyone. Like the drug campaign in the 80s these conversations quite possibly do more damage than good. They undermine all the people who are actively working to make changes. They foster further isolation and convince people that  no one else really cares. They don’t empower people to step up and try to do something, because people are left feeling like they’ll be alone, that their efforts will be futile, or that the problem is just too big. Nevertheless, I’ve seen a lot of people being proactive lately and I am excited. For example check out Diversify – A New Blog Series, Elizabeth Bluemle’s post for booksellers, True or False? Multicultural Books Don’t Sell, Daniel José Older’s recent post Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing, and Kelly Jensen’s We Need Bigger Megaphones for Diversity in Kid Lit, all of which contain a strong call to action for everyone.

We need to change the narrative. Let’s start telling the positive stories, because they are there. Authors of color write books. Characters of color — who are amazing role models — exist in everything from board books to YA. Publishers choose to publish and promote books that celebrate diversity. Booksellers hand sell great books that have it all — identifiable characters, great writing, engaging stories, and are inclusive. All people purchase books that include a wide range of diversity. Teachers and librarians are contentious about putting inclusive books in their classrooms and libraries. Parents actively encourage their children to be knowledgeable citizens and seek out books that will help support the messages they are trying to convey. Kids of all backgrounds happily read books about kids of all backgrounds.

Ultimately talking about diversity in publishing demands self-reflexivity and action. My concerns are about what I can do. What choices I am making. What I am doing to maintain the status quo, whether or not I realize it. What I am doing to encourage and support diversity, whether or not I realize it. So I want to hear from you. You, the individual, whether you are a reader, author, publisher, bookseller, librarian, teacher, parent, concerned citizen, any combination of the above who identifies as a book lover. I work in a primarily children’s bookstore on Cape Cod in MA. I handle the digital media, the store events, and I work schools and other organizations in town. I volunteer on committees in the publishing industry and in my community. I believe our store strives to support diversity and inclusion, but I know we can do more. I know I can do more. I’ve been thinking about these conversations a lot lately. I have some ideas and I know it’s time to start experimenting and implementing concrete actions. I’ll let you know how it goes. If you have suggestions or advice, please tell me. What do you think a bookseller can do? What can I do next?

~ Sara

Staff Review: Noggin

9781442458727Noggin

John Corey Whaley

Atheneum Books for Young Readers

$17.99

Available April 2014

Noggin is one of those novels that I call “What if?” novels.  The question here is what if your head was separated from your body but wasn’t dead?

Remember when Ted Williams, the famous baseball player, died, and his son had his head cryogenically frozen? I have always wondered what, exactly, would be done with Ted’s head if and when it became medically possible to re-animate it. Would it be in a tank of liquid nutrients, like growing plants hydroponically? Would it be able to communicate? Would it qualify as being alive? Why would anyone even want to do this? If I chose to be cryogenically preserved, I would have gone whole hog and had all of me preserved. Why on earth would you just want your head frozen? It never occurred to me that another person might preserve only their body, but this option opens up all sorts of possibilities: bodies without heads can be combined with heads without bodies! This is just like grafting plants together, which is how fruit trees and many other ornamentals are propagated, where  the “head” is the scion (stems leaves, flowers, and fruits of a desirable type), and the “body” is the rootstock (generally a hardier type than the scion, enabling growth in colder climates). There is occasionally even a graft involving an interstock, which might be equivalent to . . . never mind, I’m done with plant analogies.

Travis Coates is – well, was, and, then, is – a 16 year old who died of cancer, and had his head preserved. This decision was one of those decisions that teenage boys make, without really thinking through the possible consequences. Well, maybe not the frozen head part, but the impulsive aspect part that teenage boys seem to excel at. Five years later, Travis wakes up in a hospital, alive, free of cancer, and in possession of a new healthy body. And not just any healthy body, but a bulked out buff body, which used to belong to one Jeremy Pratt. Why is this new person Travis and not Jeremy? The answer is that Head seems to trump Body like a weird game of rock-paper-scissors.

There are some truly funny moments, like when Travis spills out the contents of a vase that turn out to be his cremated remains (but remember, not his head), and his dad frantically tries to sweep the ashes into a pile with his bare hands, while his mom screams for the vacuum. Well, I thought this was funny. Or when his mom makes him wear a scarf around his neck, because there is a ring around his neck, you know, where the doctors sewed his head on. And girls seem to think this is cool, as Travis soon discovers. Or when Travis is alone for the first time since he came back to life, and he takes his clothes off to check out his . . . interstock. You know what I mean.

Travis never really expected to come back to life, nor did anybody else expect him to. It was one of those white elephant situations where nobody wanted to come right out and say that Travis was really really sick, that he was going to die much too young, and that was going to be the end of it. In a weird way, Travis thought it would help his family and friends if they thought there might be a possibility of him just going away for awhile. In the same way, his family and friends thought Travis needed to believe that he wasn’t really going to die. Maybe they thought Travis was trying to help them come to terms with his impending death too. Death comes with so much baggage. People are afraid to talk about it.

A small part of Travis thought that if he returned – what teenager ever really expects that they might not be around? – it would be in the far future, not five years later. He returns, and is shocked to discover that things have changed. His room is different. His stuff is gone. His girlfriend is engaged. His parents are divorced, although they hide this from him for a long time. Life does go on, even after a tragedy. People get through it, they heal, and they move on. Five years is a long time for an adolescent, and all of Travis’s friends have grown. They have graduated high school, finished college, and gotten jobs. Travis is stuck in the past, since it feels like he just went to sleep and then woke up, but life has changed for his friends and family. Just imagine if someone you loved died and came back to life a few years later. No matter how much the dead person is missed, trying to re-integrate them into your changed life would be incredibly difficult. Travis gets stuck in his past, trying to recreate it, but no one else lives there anymore. Travis must reconcile his past with the realities of his present in order to be able to move into his future, and he can only do this when he accepts that he can’t preserve people in the past, he can only accept them as they are in the future.

~ Lysbeth Abrams

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