I'm a generalist. Professionally. Personally, I'm a bit of a specialist, but - hrmhm - that's just between us. No, I'm a generalist librarian - a librarian who serves both adult and juvenile customers. Most public library systems don't expect their professional staff to be proficient with teens, children, adults, and seniors, but the one I work for... does.
As you might imagine, librarians in other systems sometimes scoff at this arrangement. School librarians in particular are kind of amusingly horrified.
Generalists are expected to maintain at least a glancing knowledge of the adult best-seller list and genre fiction (I can name 3 Amish romance authors off the top of my head - we all can!) and stay abreast of trends in juvenile and young adult literature. It's admittedly kind of a lot. You read a lot of e-newsletters.
But the up side is that when I read an adult novel, I notice when that book includes teen or kid characters who are going through teen or kid things, and I file it in my head as possibly good for underage readers. Books like this are called Adult Books for Teens, and there's a whole blog over on SLJ devoted to them. There's also an award, the Alex Award. In an interesting boomerang effect, if you are an adult who likes books that are both well-written and fast-paced, you might mine these lists for suggested reading. I do.
By the same token, when I read children's literature, which I mostly do, sometimes I notice when the characters, the setting, or the obstacles they confront would resonate with the adult readers I serve. There's no blog for Children's Books Recommended for Adult Readers, but maybe there should be.
Take, for example, El Deafo. El Deafo is author/illustrator Cece Bell's graphic novel memoir of her childhood. With its blue cover and semi-cartoony artwork, El Deafo recalls another graphic novel memoir that adults very much enjoyed: Smile by Raina Telgemeier. And like Smile, El Deafo is about Cece's experiences with school and friendship and how her physical difference - in Raina's case it was severe dental trauma but in Cece's it's profound hearing loss - affected her childhood.
Cece's book is arguably for younger readers than Smile is. It begins when Cece is about four and contracts the meningitis that would take away much of her hearing, while Raina's book is set squarely in the middle school years. But both books appeal to children from about third grade on up (to infinity).
I had the great good fortune to see Cece Bell and her husband Tom ("Call me Larry") Angleberger meet and greet and entertain and sign books for a bunch of kids at Green Row Books in Ellicott City, Maryland a couple of weeks ago. When it was my turn to get my book signed, I plopped down on my knees so that I would be at eye level with the author. It was a noisy room and I have enough trouble with my own auditory processing that I could use the comprehension boost that I get from lip reading.
There's a lot in El Deafo about lip reading. Don't turn away while you're talking to a lip reader. Facial hair sucks. Get your hand out from in front of your face. Lord. I had a boss who habitually held her hand in front of her mouth while speaking. I think she was mimicking some anime character, and I just never had any idea what she was telling me.
This is Cece Bell's first graphic novel - she has previously written and/or illustrated picture books and Rabbit and Robot , an award-winning Beginning Reader, and she uses the visual vocabulary of the graphic novel brilliantly. Innovatively, I'd go so far as to say.
Blank speech bubbles and fading text duplicate the frustrating sensation of experiencing silence or unintelligible murmuring instead of speech. The clear sounds that she hears through the bulky Phonic Ear that she uses in school are distinguished from other sounds with the jagged lines that cartoonists use to indicate phone conversations.
But it's not just this kind of consciousness-raising info that makes me think El Deafo is a great book for adults to read. And it's not just because, based on the book's cultural references (Cece watches The Monkees after school and is mystified when the neighbor kids sing along to Captain and Tennille on the radio - oh hon, we all were a bit mystified by The Captain, even those of us with crystalline hearing), Cece Bell appears to be about my age.
No, I think adults should read El Deafo for the same reason I think kids should read El Deafo.
Little Cece cycles through a number of friends: a bossy friend, a friend who drives Cece crazy because she won't stop TAALKING. LIKE. THIIIIS, and a cute boy; and she deals with crisis in her friendships. She's a little more self-conscious than most kids, but honestly - not all that much. And it's great to see her struggle with her feelings about these friends.
In the end, there's a distinct sense that Cece has not settled. She deserves the right friend, and she makes the decision more than once that she'd rather be alone than be patronized or pushed around.
El Deafo is rather bold, I'd say. It doesn't mind giving us Cece's more vulnerable moments. We see her bored, lonely, angry. We see her regret her actions or words and we watch her both cave to pressure from friends and stand up to it.
This is something else that El Deafo shares with Smile. In both cases we get to see real girls exhibit strong feelings and sometimes even do the wrong thing - and the world doesn't end. It's ok. Nobody gets a makeover (in fact, Cece physically resists one), nobody is saved by that one perfect friend, and neither book promises a happy ever after.
But I think anyone who reads El Deafo will believe that Cece lived more strongly ever after.
Brown Girl Dreaming is Jacqueline Woodson's verse memoir of her youngest years, from the day she was born, through her early childhood in the South, until she is, hm, about twelve years old and living la vida Sesame Street in Brooklyn. I (and the National Book Award committee) would go so far as to call it an instant classic - perfect for classroom use, a great model for projects, introspective but observant and sometimes a little funny. It even includes that nonfiction grail: real photos of the people in the book. Kids crave proof that the characters are real. Fifth grade and up.
The poetry is lovely. I am not usually a poetry person, but the way that Jackie drops in sensory description - the creak of a porch swing, the smell of scorched hair, what a satin ribbon feels like between your fingers as you wash it under the faucet - gives these poems a tender immediacy, as if they were happening on your own back porch instead of in a book. Her voice is sincere, gentle, but strong. Quiet, but well-supported from the diaphragm. This is a calm person telling you the truth about something that is important to her, and you want to listen.
And what truth it is. Like Cece, Jackie is about my age - she was born in 1963, it says so in the book. Like me, Jacqueline Woodson is one of the last little girls to wear white gloves to church and ribbons in her hair every day. Man those gloves were stupid. They never fit. My hands were always too big and the finger crotches were always half a knuckle up from where my actual fingers met my hand. I have seen Ms. Jackie Woodson's hands in person, and I believe she may have had the same problem.
Unlike me, however, Jacqueline Woodson remembers walking to the back of the bus before taking a seat. Jacqueline Woodson remembers "Whites Only" signs on bathrooms. Jacqueline Woodson had neighbors who marched for their rights, and when Jacqueline Woodson was a girl, her mother's high school was set on fire during a school dance because the students had participated in those marches. I went to the same high school as my mother did. Nobody burned it down for any reason.
Nope. My high school sits in a largely white suburb in Maryland, and when I learned about Jim Crow in school, I was appalled. I am almost fifty years old now, and it turns out I can still be shocked that someone my age can have experienced institutionalized racism.
I shouldn't. I shouldn't be surprised. I heard Chris Rock on "Fresh Air" the other day. Terri Gross asked him about talking to his daughters about racism and he said "Girls are different. Girls are - god bless - not in that kind of danger. Girls don't get shot by the cops." It blew me away. I have always been grateful that my children are boys, because boys don't by and large get raped, and here is a father grateful that his children are girls, because they won't get shot by cops.
In Brown Girl Dreaming, we learn about all the members of Jackie's family. Her grandmother, who walked a straight and narrow Jehovah's Witness path. Her uncle who didn't, and went to jail for a while. Big sister Odella, who couldn't stop reading, and baby Roman, who couldn't resist eating paint. The lead paint ban went into effect in 1978, prompted by children like Roman, who ended up in the hospital.
In Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson is keenly aware of these links between her family's history and the history of our country, but knows better than to turn her family into some awful parable. As her surroundings shift from South to North, from a house to an apartment, her perceptions widen, but her focus remains firmly personal. She never says that moving to Brooklyn was like moving to Sesame Street - instead she writes a poem about eating chicken and beans on the stoop with her Latina best friend and realizing from a casual comment that she is considered a member of Maria's family. She doesn't describe the warm gush of pride that she must have felt - instead she reports herself echoing Maria's statement, "This part's just for family." That warmth spreading through your chest is her gift to us.
I want to re-read Brown Girl Dreaming with... with everyone, actually. I have a need to check my own experience with people who grew up where I did - 'Did you realize there were still Whites Only bathrooms in the south when we were kids?' I want to talk about this book with my black friends and co-workers, with my neighbors and the parents of my kids' friends. I want to read it with the President, and look into his eyes to see if I see pain or pride.
This is my country, and my half century, and I do not know it well enough. I want to understand how my friend Mona can merely roll her eyes and shrug it off when the white clerk at the grocery store loudly announces, "You can't buy that kind of cheese with WIC." I would have ripped that woman a new one and then sued Safeway - but that's how you respond when you stand in a position of privilege. Doesn't Mona, who lives two doors down from me and possesses double my verbal skills (and probably quadruple my paycheck), stand in the same place?
On the other hand, if the position in this picture - at the podium, on stage, having just been awarded the National Book Award for young people's literature - doesn't confer immunity from tone-deaf racial commentary - and it didn't - I do not know where you would have to stand.
I am pretty stupid about the experience of being brown in America, but I hope that I am not as ignorant as Daniel Handler, who, when introducing Jacqueline Woodson at the National Book Awards, instead of highlighting her myriad awards and accomplishments, thought it would be cute to call attention to the fact that she is allergic to watermelon.
Jackie wrote an essay responding to his remarks. She took the high road, writing about historical context and the sick feeling you get when you realize you have been the butt of a joke - not his joke, but the joke he referenced, and how even mentioning a joke like that sections you off, reminds you that you are, for whatever reason, still THEM and not US.
There she was in the New York Times, once again calmly taking white America to school in her sincere and committed way - instead of calling Handler out for being a lousy, unprepared emcee, making fun of his huge babyhead, and telling him to read the damn book. And then suing Safeway because she was on a roll.
These two books, El Deafo and Brown Girl Dreaming, are for buying not borrowing. Keep 'em around.