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Ban this Book is a perfect read for any time of year, but it feels especially apt at the beginning of the school year.  Narrator Amy Anne Ollinger is a child most at home in books.  She lives at the library, and because the librarian has a rule that the same book cannot be checked out more than twice in a row, she keeps an up-to-the-minute calendar of when she can go back to check out and re-read her favourites.  The battle over banned books begins when she goes looking (desperately! eagerly!) for The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and it’s gone.  A school parent has taken it upon herself to go over the head of the librarian and strip the shelves of books she deems inappropriate.

Amy Anne is enlisted by the librarian to help fight what the principal steadfastly refuses to call censorship, but at the first school council meeting, when she has a chance to voice her concerns, Amy Anne is unable to summon the courage to deliver the speech she has prepared.  Painfully shy, as many booklovers are, she falters when her voice is so badly needed.

The first person narration of the book works brilliantly here.  We are told what the people in Amy Anne’s life are not.  We have a privileged insight into all the turmoil, anger, sarcasm and humour that runs under her silence.  Amy Anne begins covertly loaning banned books from her locker, getting great books into the hands of both avid and reluctant readers, and we see her struggle to balance her shyness and her enthusiasm for the books.

I loved every line of this book.  I especially loved that Amy Anne does not have a straight path to success and makes a lot of mistakes on the way.

Most of all, I love that Amy Anne is a Black narrator through whose eyes we see the world.  In the first chapter, when she describes the librarian as “a big white lady,” I was brought up short and realized with embarrassment that I had assumed the narrator was white.  This in spite of the cover art.

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That’s how privilege works.  We see ourselves effortlessly.

Youngest, who is in Grade 6 and who loved this book as much as I did, came with me last week to a panel discussion moderated by Zalika Reid-Benta at the Toronto Reference Library for Well-Read Black Girl, an anthology edited by Glory Edim.  It was a wonderful and uplifting discussion of community, legacy and the importance of libraries in the formation of a writer’s craft and voice.

Renee Watson described how she has a non-negotiable rule about cover art for her work.  The skin tone of the characters on the cover has to fit the content of the book.  (Amy Anne, too, insists that we see her, and she describes her skin tone in relation to her parents’ and her siblings’.)

There was much to love about the conversation, but one image that stuck with me is that books are mirrors and windows for kids to see themselves and the world.  Racialized and LGBTQIA+ kids especially need those mirrors and windows in a world that is almost always white and straight by default.  Describing the work of Jacqueline Woodson, Renee Watson writes,

That is who Jacqueline is writing for. The child in the back of the classroom, the one buried in a book, creating paragraphs in a hidden journal. She is writing mirror books for young Black children who need to see themselves in the pages of a story. She is writing window books for readers to strengthen the muscle of empathy and look into someone else’s world.

Banned books unfairly target those who need the windows and mirrors the most, which is what makes this particular brand of bullying so abhorrent to me.

It was Banned Book Week last week, an occasion to seek out, read and discuss the books that have been banned at schools.  The list of books most often banned in 2018 is notable for its censorship of and discrimination against LGBTQIA+ content.  Sigh. 

There is a lot of work to be done out there, Readers!  Kids need mirrors and windows!  Go be the voice that champions banned books!  Go have some fun reading!  Spread the word about your favourites!  Get the books that kids need onto their library shelves!

 

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I stopped reading commercial fiction because I stopped trusting the author to transport me.  I had stumbled on too many flaws: holes in the plot, predictable narrative structure, wooden characters, harm to women and children as an engine of plot, outmoded models of womanhood, failure to challenge the status quo, etc.  If the whole point of reading commercial fiction is guilty pleasure, too much of the pleasure had had to give way to tripping on what had appeared to me to be glaring mistakes of craft or politics.

Then Jenny Colgan came into my hands, placed there by Marian Misters at The Sleuth of Baker Street.  Hurrah for hand-sold books from independent booksellers!

I had gone in looking for a mystery that featured trees.  It’s an odd ask, I know, but I was reading The Overstory by Richard Powers and just loving it.  I wanted that plus murder mystery.

Marian suggested a mystery set in a bookstore with a tree growing inside it.  SOLD.  Bookshop as setting pretty much guarantees reading pleasure, right?  She warned me, though, that the book contained magic.  She was right to warn me.  I enjoyed the book, I even enjoyed it enough to go back the next day and buy the next installment, but I’m done now.

When I enthused about the bookstore setting, Marian also suggested Jenny Colgan’s The Bookshop on the Shore, and this is a book I not only enjoyed but can wholeheartedly endorse.  There are some snags of chronology, the narrative structure is not at all innovative, there is a heteronormative romance with the predictable push/pull of attraction, harm to children is an engine of plot, and there is–spoiler alert–a happy ending.  None of this mattered because it was all done deftly, and I was utterly swept up, and then I went out and bought three more of her books (The Bookshop on the Corner, the first in the series, and her two boarding school books, Class and Rules, which I enjoyed enough, but I’m probably done now.)

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So, the matter of trust, it turns out, is not about the author but the genre, and I found an author I trust.  Jenny Colgan delivers a good, guilty pleasure.  Her female protagonists are feisty and independent, and that’s enough to counter any arguments I might have with other aspects of the genre.

And the bookish ingredients are wonderful.  Her booksellers are really good at putting the right book in a lost reader’s hand.  Her narrator is really spot on about the fallout from cuts to library services, about the very slim margins in bookselling and about the precarious balance of a bookshop’s quality assurance and ability to stay afloat.  The mobile bookshop creates community wherever it goes.  There is a jaw-dropping private library around which a whole manor is built.  Some of the bookish content is trenchant commentary and some of it is utterly romantic, but there are actual lives to be saved and transformed by books–selling them, reading them, recommending them.

Obviously, it was the bookish ingredients that brought me to these books, but it was such a delight to revel in the joys of commercial fiction.  I took comfort in the assured structure.  I loved the happy ending.  I longed for the book-loving hero to sweep the book-loving heroine off of her feet.

And I’m now on the lookout for more excellent authors of commercial fiction who will sweep me off my feet.

If you’re tempted to read these, and if it matters to you to read in order, begin at the beginning with The Bookshop on the Corner.

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This post is brought to you by Kerry Clare, who pushed me back to blogging with her Blog School. Check it out.

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Dear Blog

Dear Blog,

I am so sorry for my long absence.  It’s not you, it’s me.  Or it’s February, which has turned into March, which since they are months require capital letters, but if they didn’t, I’d have used them, because even though there hasn’t actually been a winter, it’s been Winter, you know? 

I saw the year’s first snowdrops today, though, so perhaps pathetic fallacy will out and I will soon sprout new posts.

I just want you to know that I do think about you often, even if I have not made it to the pile of posts waiting to be written. 

Love,

Nathalie

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The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore from Moonbot Studios on Vimeo.

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Happy Bloomsday

He can find no trace of hell in ancient Irish myth, Haines said, amid the cheerful cups.  The moral idea seems lacking, the sense of destiny, of retribution.

 

Here is a piece from Salon.com about Ulysses as tweets.

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I can read in red.

I can read in blue.

I can read in pickle color too.

Mississippi, Indianapolis and Halleluja, too!I can read them with my eyes shut!

That is VERY HARD to do!

But it’s bad for my hat and makes my eyebrows get red hot.

SO … reading with my eyes shut I don’t do an awful lot.

And when I keep them open

I can read with much more speed.

You have to be a speedy reader

’cause there’s so, so much to read!

from I Can Read with My Eyes Shut

Dr. Suess

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Green

image credit

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!  May the bottles you upend and the books you read give you a wonderful new perspective on things.

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