A response to the question Why Don’t Kids Read NZ Young Adult?

Tonight I have read an article in the wonderful The Sapling which has made me cross.  I’m responding here because I’m forming my thoughts and this is my blog and therefore my opinion.  This is a bit stream of consciousness, so apologies for it’s rantishness.

In the article, promoting her book review site, Eirlys Hunter makes the argument that NZ kids don’t read young adult fiction written by New Zealanders. She asked teenagers if they had read Margaret Mahy, and they hadn’t heard of her.  I can assure her that she is right in supposing that teenagers currently at school right now will never have read Mahy or Tessa Duder or a heap of other NZ writers who were popular in the 90s. This is for a really good reason.  These books will have been weeded from libraries long ago. We have to keep our collections current, they have to cater to the tastes of our current students.  If we cater to students by providing the books they should read, we will have no readers.

Now, I’ve been working in school libraries for nearly 18 years now, I have never read the Tricksters, The Catalogue of the Universe or Memory, in all honesty I’ve not even heard of them. While they might be admirable books, they are not books that I would ever attempt to pitch at a 14 year old in 2017.  But maybe a movie of The Changeover will start a Margaret Mahy resurgence, but maybe not.  Books and authors are not perennial in the YA world.  Despite the marvellousness they might have, they fade.  It is totally the same as with adult books.  20 years ago everyone was reading Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy, now they are not (I do understand that they are not literature!)

If you ask some students now if they have read some of the common crop of New Zealand authors, people like Mary Anne Scott, Brian Faulkner, Fleur Beale and Melinda Szymanik you will find that there are quite a few who have.  Definitely not lots of them, but definitely some.  These are students who have either had a book sold to them by an awesome librarian, or they have come across the book been attracted in some way, in some cases this is definitely because of the cover!  There are certainly some dreadful covers floating around the NZ YA world.

I don’t think it is true that NZ YA is better than other places, there is some pretty ordinary stuff published here sometimes, but there is also some excellent stuff.  It is the same in every country.  The Self-publishing boom is getting even more books out there, and a few of those are great.  But when the Council tell us that only a small percentage of teenagers read, and some of the borrowing stats around the country would bear that out, you need to do more than just tell people that they should be reading books ‘from the olden days’.  Our teenagers want the cool stuff.  They are totally influenced by social media and librarians who are purchasing books are equally impressed.

It is a strange thing that reading, which is supposed to be pleasurable and a lovely thing to do, can so often be treated as a ‘should’ kind of thing by some of us.  That students are asked to write ‘proper’ reviews, of at least 500 words.  Surely that just turns something that could be fun, into something that is now work.  A surefire way to kill a love of reading is to make it a chore. Or worse, to make it homework.  Kids are already doing all kinds of other stuff which is drawing on their time, they don’t need to be guilted into writing pedantic reviews.  There are kids who yearn to be published authors, there are heaps who are writing for fun in their spare time but forcing it, taking away the joy and insisting on terms which are outdated and irrelevant to their lives.  We old people have to accept that the world has changed.  And engage with what youth think is cool.  Want to see some decent reviews by the target audience.  Go to this Goodreads List.  Read the reviews of people who read YA.  Who are the target audience for YA.  And then go and check out this You Tube channel.  There are lots of people who do this stuff.  They are not the book reviews of old, they are much more likely to be read by teenagers and they are the opposite of ‘proper’ book reviews, but I can guarantee the books are more likely to be read by teens when they are recommended in this way.  So yes, peers are the way to sell books to teenagers, But don’t discount librarians working in their libraries recommending books to readers, selecting great books and chatting to readers every day.

I want to address a comment in the article:

A side issue: how is it possible that, in many secondary schools, a student can study English for five years without meeting a single New Zealand book on the curriculum?).

Well that is simple.  They haven’t been set as prescribed texts.  Schools can teach whatever books they like.  They tend to go for books from which they have seen great exam responses in previous exams.  Some of the books they do read are amazing.  In our school we have class sets of books by David Hill, Denis Wright, David Hair, all New Zealanders, while some students might not encounter those books, lots will.  And there is another thing, you need to get teachers to read the books.  In every school, in every English Department, you struggle to find a bunch of teachers who are reading YA, let alone those reading NZ YA.  There is a lot of good talk about reading and it’s importance to literacy by English teachers across the land, but very little in the way of reading the product and .  It constantly amazes school librarians!

And while I’m ranting, were you aware that it is considered in literacy circles that school librarians are inherently connected with literacy in schools! Yes, I know.  Ridiculous, but it is a fact.

I could go on.  But it is late and there is a leaders debate to watch.

 

 

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Otherworld by Jason Segel & Kirsten Miller

otherworldI’m always looking for books which the gamer guys, the Ready Player One guys will enjoy, this book fits the bill really well. In the same way as RPO you are immersed in the game with competing with other players. You’ve left your body behind and you are in the virtual reality of a world which feels completely real. It is very cleverly done, scene after scene with a very real feeling, an almost breathless ride, action pushing forward all the time. There is a lot of tension between the characters, mystery and mayhem are all taking place in a breathless rush.

There is such a lot going on that it gets a bit relentless at times. It has a feel of a book which is written for a specific audience and which nails that well, but at the same time there is a slight feeling of emptiness. Maybe the characters could have been developed a bit more. Simon’s obsession at all costs, even to constantly endangering his life for the sake of his friend are at times unbelievable. There is a huge conspiracy, bad doctors and dodgy hospitals all over the place, Simon in in the game and trying to save his friend. There is a lot going on. I got a bit over the relentless struggles inside the game but I can imagine that these would be thrilling for the target audience of teenage boys.

Given it is labelled #1 it is obvious there is going to be another and I’ll definitely be buying this for our library.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for giving me access to this title.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

sapiensI’ve been obsessing about this book, telling everyone I spoke to about how fantastically interesting it is. I felt like I was reading a more objective Bill Bryson, and I think that if you like Bryson’s books you will love this.

This is a history of the human race from it’s origins to 2014, on the way we will discover foraging, the formation of settlement, transport, agriculture, economics, industrialisation and a bunch of other stuff along the way. You begin to realise that the links between all these are more complicated than you think, that throughout history people have benefited at the expense of other people and the machinations of how that works, who ultimately wins and who loses. Every time I thought I was reading my favourite chapter I found another one which was my new favourite. I love the tone of the book, slightly snarky and not taking itself too seriously, but not playing for laughs in an obvious way. Complicated ideas explained in a way that anybody can understand and linked together in ways that make you go oooohhhh!

I’m going to add his next book to my tbr pile, it might take me a while to get to it though.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

happinessUsually I reserve the category of favourite for those books which are a clear 5 stars -ooo just thought about that and updated it to 5, and here is why!

This book is a gigantic statement of Indian politics, attitudes and how the influences of the outside world have influenced society in India since the 1980s. It is bigger even than that, it is about the marginalised and the isolated, those who stand up for what they believe in, even being prepared to die for their causes. There are spies, soldiers and politicians and a cast of interesting characters. At times I lost track a little bit of whose story I was reading, but I found it best just to keep on going as things became clear in time.

The structure of the book is varied, the beginning is a story, we meet the wonderful Anjum, born with both male and female genitalia, I spend lots of time hoping we were getting back to Anjum and eventually of course we do, I loved everything about Anjum and wanted an entire novel about just her. But then there were the others, weaving in and out of the story are politicians and rogues the gentle and the violent. There are lists and itineraries and it is a book made up of lots of parts.

To me it felt like Arundhati Roy was writing her impressions of everything that has happened in India in the time since Indira Gandhi was running it. Her observations are definitely personal, this entire book is full of her, to the point where it almost isn’t a novel. It is an observation, a comment. It made me think deeply about society and how technology has changed India, the influences of western culture on India and politics in general. It is a big book which drew me in, confused me and made me think. This is an experience rather than a novel.

Unearthed by Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner

unearthedI completely loved this book. Nicely played Kaufman and Spooner! Science Fiction and archaeology combined in an action packed thriller set on a far away planet where aliens have left clues for the human race. Earth has huge problems with it’s environment and is gradually becoming destroyed to the point where people will have to find either a way of fixing it fast or will have to move to another planet. The race is on to be the person who will find the technology on another planet to bring back to Earth to save us all.

Deciphering the clues in massive temples though, provides vast challenges, they are puzzles with death as the outcome if you get them wrong. Amelia is a scavenger, raiding ancient sites on far off planets to sell for cash which she is using to pay her sister’s captors back on earth. She runs into Jules, who is the son of a disgraced historian, someone who said too much and who is now in jail. Jules has travelled to this planet to try and solve the biggest mystery ever and to prove that his father was right, but also for the personal satisfaction of being the guy who solved a massive mystery. Jules has studied the messages sent back to earth by the inhabitants deciphered the codes and is on a mission to find out what the clues in the messages mean for humanity.

This is going to be hugely popular, I hope it has an awesome cover with an androgynous cover on it. the fraught relationship between the two protagonists is great. The way that total mistrust leads to complete trust is so nicely done. I love the protagonists alternating chapters.

Secondary school libraries are going to want to buy lots of copies of this. And it is just the beginning of a series, one I will be following avidly.

All The Dirty Parts by Daniel Handler

dirtyWell, this is going to be controversial! Public libraries rush out and get this as soon as it is available, school libraries, I bet this one gets you some interesting comments! I can see the lights flashing and the censors racing to ban this from every library in the land.

Someone here on Goodreads has placed a comment that it should be reviewed by males, and I can see that, after all, we are firmly placed inside the head of a teenage boy who is thinking about sex, having sex, exploring all manner of sex and being generally a sex crazed teenage boy. This isn’t a relationship book and yet it is, this isn’t a helpful guide and yet it is.

I liked almost all of this novel.

I liked that it was short. There was no need to draw this out. Nice job Daniel Handler.

I liked that this teen guy seemed real, no stupid conversations, no helpful parents, just him and his penis and his constant thinking about using it.

I liked the honesty, the judgments that he was putting it about too much, the attitudinal change of his friends and classmates as he embarked on a relationship which excluded all of them.

I loved the way his relationship with his best friend changed as they tried out sex and then tried to figure out where they fitted in the hetro/homo state of the world.

What I didn’t like:
I didn’t love the girl in here, she seemed so one dimensional compared to him. But I get it, it is really all about her – ahem … attributes.

Many people will cringe at this book, but I’m going to buy a copy and hand it to our school counselor because I really liked it and I see it as having a voice that young people might really like, but there will be a bunch of haters and they are gonna hate real strong.

Yep, this is a novel about sex. All of the everythings about sex, from the point of view of a teenage boy and so it is really aptly named.

Thanks Netgalley and the publisher for giving me access to this. It was very enlightening and I won’t be looking a teenage boy in the eye for a couple of days now that I know what is going on behind those eyes.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

beforefallAfter I’d done a few investigations about the author when I’d finished the book I realised why I liked the tone of this so much. This guy wrote the Fargo TV series, a favourite of mine. Ah ha, I thought, this is why the tone is so good. The structure of this is really interesting. It starts off with a straightforward story of a plane crashing into the ocean, the only survivors are an artist and a little boy, they swim to shore from the crash. It is exciting, tense and really gripping. Then you take a step back and you get the stories of the people on the plane, written in a kind of report style. At first, I wasn’t sure about this, particularly about the character Ben Kipling who is secretly doing dastardly business. You’ll have to read it to find out what, but in the end, I loved these sections. Our story travels to and fro between the accounts of the lives of those who have been killed and our hero Scott who saved the little boy.

Yes, this is a crime novel but it is a great exploration of the human psyche, how we react under pressure, the things we hide from our loved ones, how we are able to push ourselves in times of strife. It has comments on the role of the media, how artists view the world differently to those of us who are not artistic, how some of the things we value in society are not attractive qualities. This is a really interesting book. I read an e-book and all through it people had highlighted paragraphs of insightful writing. I’m looking forward to more novels from this author.