Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wednesday Words: Libraries Live

There are a few questions that are pretty much inevitable when I tell people that I go to "library school" and that I work in a high school library. First of all, there's "library school? Is that real?" Secondly, there's usually something along the line of "Do we really use or need libraries anymore since more people turn to the internet than to books for information?"

The answer to both of these questions is incredibly clear in my mind. YES!

Library school, is, in my humble opinion, heaven on earth. I sort of stumbled into it by accident (a long story that I will save for another day), but I'm so incredibly happy that I did. But the second question is one that affects each and every person in this country because despite what you may be reading on the internet or in newspapers about budgets being slashed and libraries across the country and around the world being closed, they absolutely are still relevant and matter more than ever before.

I say this and plenty of people simply nod their heads and smile, thinking I'm just some poor girl clinging to an idea because I don't want to admit that an English degree and now a library degree are crazy avenues of education. But they couldn't be more wrong. A library is a living organism - it has an incredible capacity to adapt and change and grow and it is stocked not only with books full of information, but also with people full of skills. (This is often another question I frequently get asked - "You really need a master's degree to be a librarian?" Yes!)

So people don't use books quite as much as they used to for research. Okay. I understand that. But that doesn't mean the books on the shelf are any less useful, and in the meantime, there are countless online or other electronic resources that libraries may pay to subscribe to, eating the cost so patrons may use them for free and find what they're looking for. Internet, movies, music, and of course the traditional books - these are things you pay for with your tax dollars and if you take advantage of what your local or school library has available, trust me from both a patron and professional point of view when I say that you can get more than your money's worth.

This week I got my local public library's bi-monthly newsletter, and on the first page the title proudly declares that they are celebrating "half a century of service." When the library here first opened, it was 1962 - Kennedy was president, gas cost 32 cents a gallon, and The Beatles hadn't even come to America yet. Fifty amazing years later, it continues to stand and thanks to the ability of many dedicated librarians, staff members, and passionate community members, it serves as a fantastic example for me to resort to. Libraries are national treasures, and I encourage you to take advantage of yours.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Something You Can Sink Your Teeth Into: Eighth Grade Bites

Eighth Grade Bites by Heather Brewer
Dutton Children's Books, 2007

Once upon a time, not that long ago on this very blog, I said something along the lines that I've read vampire books before and I did NOT like them. I'm really regretting having said that now because it was really unfair to generalize. And as it turns out, it's not that I don't like vampire books, I just didn't like that particular one.

My mind has recently been changed though by Heather Brewer and a thirteen year old boy named Vlad.

In the premiere novel of The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, readers are introduced to the titular Vlad at the beginning of eighth grade. He's bullied. His parents died three years ago. His only friend is Henry, but Vlad always feels like he's in Henry's shadow because Henry's the most popular guy in school. And as if all of that weren't enough to have on your plate, Vlad is half-human, half-vampire, he's pretty sure his parents were murdered because his father was a vampire, and there's something awfully suspicious about his new substitute teacher, Mr. Otis Otis.

It's going to be a long year for Vlad.

Heather and me
There are so many different things about this book that I enjoyed. I liked that we got to see everything the way Vlad does - it was so interesting to see things from the vampire's point of view. I think it also helped that there's still so much he has to learn about being a vampire, so we're learning right along with him. I loved the character of Aunt Nelly and showing how much of a difference having love and support at home can help even when things feel awful. I loved the story, the twists on vampire legends, the pop-culture references to other vampire media, and the fact that the book actually covers a lot of issues that any human can relate to. Though I wasn't bullied to the extent that Vlad is, junior high was hardly a picnic for me either. Everything about that time in life just feels Awkward and messed up and getting through a mundane day can even be exhausting. Brewer does a fantastic job at tapping into those years that some of us would rather forget and with the exception of the whole blood-drinking thing, I was able to identify with Vlad page after page after page.

Plus Heather gave me a t-shirt, tote bag, and took a picture with me! This woman rocks.

So if you're like me and are extremely apprehensive about some of the fads that come and go in fiction (such as vampires), had a bad experience, and swore them off forever, trust me when I say I think you really ought to reconsider. Perhaps you just haven't found the right vampire for you yet. Even though being a teenager can bite sometimes, Eighth Grade Bites reminded me that imagination and being open to something new can be just the thing to help you get through. It got me into my 20s fairly unscathed =)

Comments welcome, and as always, happy reading!

Heather Brewer's Website
Heather Brewer on Twitter

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Catch Her If You Can: Heist Society

Heist Society by Ally Carter
Hyperion, 2010

Ally Carter has created a 21st century pseudo-Robin Hood that kept me turning the pages in Heist Society. Kat Bishop has had anything but a normal life, and she's only 15 years old. But that's usually the case when you're born into a family of art thieves like the Bishops. She's been to the most impressive (and expensive) museums and art collections in the world, and her souvenirs don't come from the gift shop.

But three months ago, Kat walked away from the life, just wanting to be a normal kid for a change. Unfortunately, her friends, family, and fate all have other plans. Her father has been accused of stealing valuable paintings from a mobster, only he didn't do it. The only way Kat can prove her father's innocence (in this case, anyway) is to steal them back from the real thief. Sounds hard enough, but she's also been given a 2 week deadline. Luckily, Kat's not the only teenage thief around, so she assembles a heist society of her own, jumps back in the game, and they race the clock and security cameras as they attempt to pull off one of the riskiest jobs in history.

The primary and secondary characters are all colorful and it's fun seeing how they all fit together into the various aspects of the job. Kat is a perfect and impressive blend a girl who can figure out how to steal a painting from the Louvre, but can't tell when a guy is flirting with her (like her friend, the mysterious and fantastic Hale). I also liked the family dynamics at play - even though Kat's father is alive and well, it's Uncle Eddie who seems to be her primary father-figure. The crew is also extremely smart, which I enjoy. In this game, age doesn't matter if you have the skills.

If it were possible, I would be giving this book a 3.5 instead of a 3 on Goodreads, but I can't bring myself to justify a 4.  I really enjoyed Carter's exciting and action-packed story of teenage art thieves and con artists, but there were a few areas that still left me wanting more. The book is face paced, but in this case it made me feel like I was always missing something. In spite of all the good (and there are a lot of good things happening in this novel), I still had more questions than I'm comfortable with. What was it about the life that made Kat want to leave it so bad? What exactly happened to her mother? And for God's sake, what is Hale's first name?!

Perhaps these questions will be answered and these issues are resolved in the sequel, Uncommon Criminals, in bookstores and libraries now. I've liked what I've read so far, and I can't wait to see where the crew ends up next.

Comments welcome, and happy reading!

Ally Carter's Website
Ally Carter on Twitter

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Wednesday Words: Giving Thanks

I have much to be thankful for in my life from this past year, but it's amazing to me that a solid portion of those things are actually book related. Maybe it makes me a nerd, but all I know is that it makes me a very happy and grateful one. I have two blogs up and running (with lots of room to grow), library school is almost done, and YA literature in particular continues to surprise me almost daily.

One thing I am particularly grateful for was an event that took place this past Monday at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, IL. For those of you who are fans of independent bookstores, go to Anderson's. For those of you who have never yet gotten to experience the amazing things that an independent bookstore has to offer, go to Anderson's. If you live in the Chicagoland area and have not yet been to Anderson's, what are you waiting for?

See where I'm going with this? It's an amazing place, the staff is incredible, and I'm convinced that if you are not yet a booklover, this store and these people will absolutely change your mind.

Back to the point, though, on Monday night they had a panel of ten YA authors come, talk about their books, and then do autographs and pictures. Needless to say, it was pretty much heaven on earth in my eyes. This is now my 3rd time meeting YA authors and I've yet to have anything negative to say. These people are amazing. They're smart, empathetic, outrageously talented, brilliant masters of their craft, and they genuinely seemed to like talking to their fans and with each other. (For more of me gushing and professing my undying love for these people, check out my other blog here - I have plenty more to say.)

Books are so often seen as individual entities. We do independent reading, silently and by ourselves, but that didn't always used to be the case. Not so long ago, reading aloud with friends was considered to be a social activity that people would spend full evenings doing, taking turns passing the book around. Writing, I'm even finding out, doesn't have to be an isolated event. Communities of writers are incredibly supportive of each other and they act as cheerleaders and counselors for those times when it feels like you're going no where (both in life or in your story). And authors, let me tell you, are an interesting breed of artist. It's one of those things where hearing these people talk on Monday, I found myself nodding along because so much of what they were saying made perfect sense to me - I just got it.

So, as a librarian-in-training, an English degree holder, a writer, and a person passionate about all that books have to offer, meeting authors is a fantastic way to fall in love with it all over again. And if you haven't yet gotten to experience the quaint feeling of an independent bookstore (which is also full of incredibly helpful and enthusiastic book people, too), Anderson's Bookshop is waiting for you.

Comments welcome, and happy reading!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Cut Loose: One Night That Changes Everything

One Night That Changes Everything by Lauren Barnholdt
Simon Pulse, 2010

Reading for fun means different things to different people. For some, when they read for pleasure they can't get enough of how-to manuals or learning about the French Revolution. For others, it's all about a story that brings up warm fuzzies and believing in the good side of people. This weekend, I got to experience two different examples of "feel good" entertainment. The first was when I saw the new remake of Footloose - it wasn't high theatre by any means, but I enjoyed it. I got lost in a story for two hours and it was fun. The second was Lauren Barnholdt's sophomore novel One Night That Changes Everything.

I love stories that take place in an incredibly short amount of time because they make me feel like I'm experiencing the characters and situations in real time. In this case, readers are introduced to Eliza, a junior in high school living in the greater Boston area. She's looking forward to a night hanging out with her two best friends since her parents are out of town, but the boy who recently broke her heart, Cooper, and his friends seem to have a much different agenda: they've somehow gotten their hands on the little purple notebook that Eliza has been writing down all of her fears in since she was 12 and they want her to face more than a few of them before the night is over otherwise they'll post all of them online for the whole world to see.

Barholdt's novel is fast paced, and rightly so considering it all takes place in less than eighteen hours. Yet in that short amount of time, you still get a feel for the characters that's more than one-dimensional. Some of Eliza's fears/tasks are pretty common - who isn't mortified by the thought of performing karaoke? - but others are much more painful, like admitting a secret to her big sister that's been eating at her for a while. And of course there's Cooper, an enigma all on his own. His "friends" are the one putting Eliza through all of this, yet he's trying to help her as much as he can every step of the way.

All in all, this book got me into a fantastic mood for the weekend when I read it Friday. It was fun, I liked the pacing, and the premise, though a little ridiculous, was still interesting. I couldn't wait to see how Eliza got through it or if she would ever draw the line and say "No." This novel is brain candy that isn't so sweet that it will leave you groaning with a headache afterwards, but instead just made me smile and feel a little bit nostalgic for the nights I had in high school and college that felt like they, too, changed everything.

Comments welcome, and happy reading!

Lauren Barnholdt's Website
Lauren Barnholdt on Twitter

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wednesday Words: E-Readers

It feels like they're everywhere, and it seems like a lot of people have very strong opinions on them. I am talking about the wonderful world of e-readers and the incredible impact they have had on the publishing and reading public in the last few years.

Within the last few months, we've seen what has been presented to us in commercials and ads as huge leaps and bounds in this particular venture. E-ink, no glare screens are just the tip of the iceberg for some of these devices. Now we have tablets, color screens, touch screens, LEDs that are back lit so you don't even need to invest in a booklight anymore. Plus there's the selling point that's been there pretty much all along - you can have hundreds if not thousands of books available to you at your fingertips, and all in something that weighs just over a pound.

With the new Barnes & Noble Nook Color Tablet out along with the new line of Amazon Kindles, these devices somehow are making reading a bit more chic again because it's not just about reading anymore, it's about having this gadget. I couldn't avoid this topic even if I tried.

There are big claims being made on both sides of the aisle. Some say that these devices combined with self-publishing makes it possible for every writer's stories to be shared. Others say this degrades the publishing industry if anyone can call themselves a 'published author.' Some believe e-readers will make bookstores and libraries obsolete (or that they already have) while others believe that on the contrary, they actually encourage people to come see what their libraries have already available and they force what has a reputation to be a stuffy and stale institution to put its best foot forward.

What are my thoughts on e-readers? I have more than a few, that's for sure. I don't believe it's the end of independent and chain bookstores, though they still have their work cut out for them. I don't think all libraries will suddenly be torn down and turned into parking lots, they will just have to adapt and I believe they can. But mostly, my thoughts on this are very similar to the ones I have when talking about best-seller or most-popular lists: they're not one size fits all, not everyone is going to like them.

Personally, I love my Nook. I got it last spring so it's the older version, but it's been great for traveling and I've loved being able to check out library books to it. However, I still like the feel of a book in my hands and I find myself checking out physical books more than ever before because they're more readily available. But I don't chastise people who refuse to use them because I definitely had my doubts too.

I'm anxious to hear what other people's thoughts are on this because it's a debate that will be going on for years to come. Comments are always welcome, and as always, happy reading!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Not Your Parents' Ghost Stories: The Name of the Star

The Name of the Star (Shades of London #1) by Maureen Johnson
Putnam Juvenile, 2011

I'm not usually one for ghost stories. I don't like horror movies or being scared. I like the magical, but usually am quick to avoid dealing with the supernatural, vampires, or werewolves. (If I'm honest, it was Twilight that gave me a bad first-impression of this genre and I've been reluctant to give it another chance.)

And then I read The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson.

It's modern day England and Rory, an American girl, is trying to acclimate to the many differences she's encountering at her very British boarding school in the east end of London, Wexford. Her focus is on trying to get used to all these changes, but the rest of the city is wrapped up in Ripper-mania - that's right, someone is recreating the infamous Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 starting the night before Rory's arrival to town.

Johnson does a brilliant job easing readers into the more supernatural aspects of this story. It starts out feeling like a contemporary story (which it is in many respects), but eventually secrets come out and all is not as it appears to be. We're trying to stomach it all and wrap our heads around it the same way Rory is, which I found refreshing unlike other novels where characters easily accept these "truths" with no questions asked. Primary and secondary characters are all colorful and complex, and they feel very real. And with an ending like this one, readers are clearly forewarned that Rory still has much more to learn in the second and third installments of this Shades of London trilogy.

I'm still not saying that I'm going to be diving head first into the world of supernatural literature any time soon. However, I am much more willing to give it a second chance than I was before. And I can tell you this - I can't wait for books two and three of this series in the coming years. Johnson has me hooked.

Comments welcome and happy reading!

Maureen Johnson's Website
Maureen Johnson on Twitter
Maureen Johnson on Tumblr

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Wednesday Words: The Best of the Best

It's hard to believe that just over a week ago, decorations in stores, offices, and homes had to do with ghosts, goblins, and graveyards. Yet suddenly here we are, a mere nine days into November and plenty of places seem to have skipped over Thanksgiving and put their minds straight to Christmas. And when the holiday season is upon is, new year's is just around the corner. And with 2012 almost at our doorsteps, it means that in the coming weeks we will be seeing much more looking back at 2011, often lists about the best and worst things the year had to offer.

An example of this in the world of books is simple: lists announcing the best books of 2011 are already floating around the internet, posted in libraries and mentioned on Twitter. The three biggest ones to catch my eye were the lists by, Publishers Weekly, and the voting currently taking place at

Upon reflection, I'm not really sure what to make of these lists. Do they tell us anything we don't already know? Of course there can be surprises, a book may show up on these end of the year lists or ballots that didn't get maybe as much attention as it ought to have when it first came out in the last twelve months. But it seems to me like these lists are more of a confirmation than anything: these are the books that have touched us, have said something, and in a lot of cases but certainly not all have had time on best-seller lists as well.

To me, it's a difficult thing to grasp. To narrow down all of the talent and hard work that was published this year down to a list of ten items just seems cruel and very narrow. I'm not saying that these books which have been selected don't deserve the honor, but I personally would love to know exactly what criteria is being used to determine what exactly "best" means to the people forming these lists.

For this reason, I like that Goodreads has made it possible for users to nominate and vote for books that may not have been selected in various categories. In a small way, it is a step towards leveling the playing field. I sometimes find myself actually more interested in pursuing these write-in candidates because I want to know what was so good about that book that none of the others on the ballot warranted the vote in an individual's mind.

But maybe that's just me. Just because I don't know exactly what my feelings are about these lists doesn't mean I won't be looking at them, still eagerly reading descriptions and summaries to add to my ever-growing pile of titles I'd love to read at some point.

I'd love to hear the opinions of others on this topic, so if you have thoughts, please leave them in comments. As always, happy reading.

Best Of Lists:

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Great Perhaps: Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska by John Green
Puffin, 2005

With NaNoWriMo and my writing goals taking up much of my free time, my pleasure reading has been bumped down the to-do list for the time being. However, since one of the most common pieces of advice among writers is to read read read. I was able to heed this advice yesterday as I took the train to Chicago, and in honor of my destination I decided to re-read Looking for Alaska by John Green who wrote the novel when he lived in the city of big shoulders while also working at Booklist Magazine.

A new student at a boarding school, Miles has come to Culver Creek from Florida seeking "a great perhaps." A junior in high school, he has a knack for learning the last words of people and though he isn't exactly sure of what he's looking for, he knows he won't find it unless he makes a change. And so it's goodbye Florida, hello Alabama. From the very first day, his life is full of mischief and adventures thanks to his new friends: The Colonel, Takumi, and the ever mysterious Alaska Young, the girl who manages to both irritate Miles and steal his heart.

Alaska is a force to be reckoned with and for the first time in his life, Miles is thinking outside of his usual box and willing to live outside the standard set of rules. The novel is cryptically divided into two sections. Rather than chapters, the "Before" section is counting down to an event ("One hundred days before"). Eventually readers find out what the event is and from then on, segments in the "After" portion count the days since.

I first heard about John Green while an undergraduate working on my minor in secondary education. One of the Vlogbrothers, John and his brother Hank make regular YouTube videos talking about a wide variety of issues. I saw my first one in an education class in which we were discussing book challenges, and Looking for Alaska was a current example. Accused of being a pornographer by citizens who were uncomfortable with the book being part of the curriculum, in his four minute video, Green eloquently states his case in a fashion that is reminiscent of the novel being discussed. I was hooked, and I had to read the book that had started this all.

One of the major strengths of Green's debut novel is that Green raises the bar for his readers and expects them to reach it. He respects them. He crafts a story that is serious, funny, realistic, and with a strong and relatable voice. He knows that young adults are capable of thinking about more than just gossip and sex and while both of those feature into the novel (it is YA, after all), they do not dominate the story. Through Miles' eyes, readers are challenged to look at the parts of life that aren't so easy on the eyes. Questions are posed that are not capable of simple answers, no matter how old or smart you are. It's no wonder to me that this book was the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award winner for excellence in young adult literature.

I was actually sad when my train pulled into Union Station in the morning, and then back into my home station in the evening when my city business was over because I so enjoyed becoming reacquainted with this story. To anyone who says that young adult literature doesn't count as "real literature," this should be the book you hand over to change that person's mind.

Comments are welcomed and as always, happy reading.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wednesday Words: The Two Sides of NaNoWriMo

Last week I mentioned my plans to participate in National Novel Writing Month this year. We are now nearing the end of day two and I'm glad to say that so far, I'm on pace to "win" or hit 50,000 words by month's end, but there is still a very, very long way to go.

As yesterday's start date drew closer and closer, I started to notice more of the authors I follow on blogs and Twitter start to become more vocal about the event. In some circles, the amount of support for the endeavor is incredibly enthusiastic. Veronica Roth, the 23 year old author of the New York Times bestselling novel Divergent encourages those who have under taken this goal to just keep writing, every day, and not looking back at what's already on the page. Stephanie Perkins' debut novel Anna and the French Kiss started out as a NaNoWriMo draft. Similarly, Maureen Johnson (another NYT bestseller and supreme ruler of the Twitterverse) has been selected as this year's Agony Aunt of the month, a sort of spokesperson and advice columnist to those NaNoers in need. She too sees the process as liberating in some ways because the month isn't necessarily about writing well, it's about taking the time to write anything at all.

As a participant, I find their words encouraging. The task is a daunting one and there have already been occasions where I find myself rolling my eyes at whatever horrendous sentence or turn of phrase has just gone from my head to my laptop screen, but I take a breath and try to just follow their advice to keep moving forward. It's difficult to not edit and tweak, and part of me is extremely uncomfortable with it, but I figure I'll never know if this kind of bootcamp writing really works for me unless I give it a chance.

However, not all novelists are fans, and these words I find just as interesting, if not more so. Maggie Stiefvater, a NYT bestseller and author of the incredibly popular Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy is willing to express her dislike of NaNo, and upon reading her thoughts about why, I respect her even more than I did before (which is difficult because I already thought the world of her). It's never easy to have the less popular opinion, and I think it's fantastic that she is willing to share her thoughts and reasons even though she's had to deal with some pretty ugly backlash as a result. I find myself nodding along as I read her blog: it's an outrageous goal, it's demanding (and not in a good way), and writing so much so quickly doesn't encourage good writing. And I do agree - what's the point of saying you wrote a whole novel in a month if you end up having to throw out so much of it come December?

She's not just being a negative Nancy, though. I give Stiefvater even more props for the fact that she's willing to listen to NaNo suporters and she respects their views. She acknowledges that some people like the forums and community, some people like the fire under their seats, and that a lot of people don't always participate the way the rules to become eligible for "winning" state because they use the time to edit old stories, or just try on a new genre for size with no intention of meeting the one month deadline.

Both sides have very valid arguments, and it's up to each individual to decide what they think for themselves. My strategy is to participate at least this one time in my life, guided by the logic that my mother would try to use on me when I didn't want to eat my vegetables: "You'll never know if you like it if you don't try it."

What are your thoughts? Leave them in Comments and, as always, Happy Reading (and writing!)

Blog Posts on NaNoWriMo by the previously mentioned authors: