I spent a couple of mornings last week helping my friend Jane organize books in her school library. Jane is the librarian at an awesome new arts and design magnet school that opens in a couple of weeks. She’s spent much of the summer bar-coding, stamping, fingerprinting and whatever else they do to new books to get them ready to put on the shelves, all the while climbing over the mountains of boxed books lugged in from her old school’s library.
When I got to the school, my job was to wrangle some order out of both old and new and put fiction, in alphabetical order by author, on the shelves. I could do this: Zen out while lining up all four zillion Arthur chapter books in order. Piece of cake.
There’s something about being in a quiet space and handling lots of books that encourages you to … think. About the books you’ve read, the ones you haven’t. The books you loved as a child. The ones you loved reading to your child.
The books you haven’t written.
[Warning: I’m going off on a tangent now; I can’t seem to help myself. Skip ahead if you don’t want/need any factoids about my life and are engrossed in A Day in the Library.
My first job out of college was editorial assistant in the children’s department of a major Boston publisher. I could even see what was claimed to be Mother Goose’s grave if I looked out the office window.
Since my current, unrealistic goal of publishing at least one novel has taken over my life, I beat myself up occasionally with “what if’s?” What if I’d stayed on in publishing? Would someone be putting my novels on the shelf of a quiet library or Barnes & Noble right now? Even better, would someone be grabbing them off the shelf? Would I be the editor giving the nay or yay to one of your manuscripts?
Who knows? All I know is that at the age of 22, I could. not. sit. still. I proofread manuscripts, checked vocabulary levels, and wrote teacher guides, but a desk job was torture for me. At the end of fifteen months, I quit my publishing job, bought a backpack and an airline ticket and headed to Europe for an extended hippie tour. I haven’t looked back at Mother Goose, at least not for a good long while. Until now.]
But the H, I, and J’s were beckoning and so I forged ahead. Carl Hiaasen rocks. His kids’ books are just as much fun as his adult books – a great mix of reverence for the environment with irreverence for everything else. I wanted to sit right down and read Hoot (yes, that is Jimmy Buffett playing the science teacher in the movie version), but the K’s were calling.
The K’s! Carolyn Keene country! I longed to pull out an old Nancy Drew and curl up in the corner with it for an hour or two. But I’d committed to loading all the fiction through K on the shelves so I fingered them only briefly as I shelved The Hidden Staircase. Some other day, perhaps.
I took one long peek into From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and then the K’s were done. I was done.
So, what did I learn from getting down and dirty with Kiddy Lit, letters A through K?
- There are more creepy books for kids now than there were back in the early Goosebumps days.
- Vampires are more menacing now than they were in Bunnicula. And more prevalent, but you already knew that, unless you’ve been living in a cave.
- Badly written sports stories are just as popular as ever.
- Really dark, really shiny book jackets with titles in bright colors are inviting. I want to look inside them. Right now.
- Old, tired ‘library bindings’ don’t make me want to pick them up. Ever.
- Many ‘literary fiction’ prizewinning authors have written a bunch of other titles as well. In series. In different genres. On different topics. They just keep writing. Jean Craighead George, for example, is almost ninety and still going strong.
- There’s a boatload of young adult books out there that are worth exploring. Old ones, new ones. Lots of them. I want to get inside them.
So about that boatload of Y.A. fiction…
Early in this post, I mentioned Julie of the Wolves, Jean Craighead George’s 1973 Newbery Medal winner. Julie is an Eskimo girl who runs away from an untenable situation and ends up living in the wilderness with a wolf pack. I read the book back in the day and remember how much it made me think at the time – about life, cultural differences, human-animal relations. About nuance, and not-so-satisfying endings. But I hadn’t consciously thought of the book in years.
And then I thought about Libby, a character in my current WIP. Libby is a young woman who flees an abusive situation, lands in an unfamiliar cultural setting, and discovers she has a special relationship with wild animals. Have I unconsciously channeled Julie through Libby? Who knows? The story of Julie is more complex than my Libby’s story. And better written. And sadder. Now I want to reread Julie of the Wolves to see if it sheds some light on how I could deepen Libby’s story (without killing off Reed, of course!)
While I’ve been struggling to cram this blog post into readable form, my blogging buddy Darksculptures, coincidentally (well, maybe – some of us think there are no coincidences) posted her recent foray into young adult literature with Lois Lowry’s the giver. Go read her post: Sometimes the best thing a writer can do is shut up and listen to their kids. And read the giver.
Most of the books I’ve mentioned so far have been around for years. But I shelved so many interesting-looking new and new-ish books I’d never heard of, and wished I’d had the time to explore them, too. Or at least remember some titles, who wrote them.
Here in the land of there-are-no-coincidences, this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review featured this article: The Kids’ Books Are All Right.
The author, Pamela Paul, wrote about her love for Y.A. fiction – and the KidLit book group she belongs to – it’s a pretty heady group that includes authors, editors, agents, and book critics who, as one of the members said, “take these books seriously.” Paul wrote about getting lost in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games while in the hospital, barely noticing whether her new baby ate or slept. And given what I read about The Hunger Games here, who could blame her?
I know them!
They’re in the C’s – there, on the second shelf. With the really dark, really shiny book jackets.
You know you want to look inside. Right now.