24 Hour Library

A Library Blog by Abby Hargreaves

Month: September 2016

Show Off: Banned Books Week

There are, as you might imagine, a lot of rules around political involvement and being an employee of local government. Librarians and other library staff are often employed at the town or city level by the local government, making them subject to these rules. This means no speaking to patrons about personal political leanings, who you’re likely to vote for, or what your stances on particular issues are. This means no wearing t-shirts that proclaim loyalty for a candidate, disdain for another candidate, or anything else that might be politically suggestive.

What’s interesting to me is that libraries and librarianship are inherently political. Despite how we may be required to refrain from sharing our political opinions, libraries are — or, at least we try to be — democratic. We’re about equal and equitable access to information. We’re about standing in solidarity for the right to free speech and the reception of that speech (intellectual freedom). We’re about protecting privacy, as many libraries pushed back against the Patriot Act and its implications. And so, annually, we celebrate this with Banned Books Week in September.

This year, Banned Books Week begins today, September 25, and runs through October 1. Given the opportunity to put together a display about banned books in the young adult section of one of the libraries where I work, I got straight to planning. Teens are probably on the receiving end of book banning more than other populations. Sure, children’s books And Tango Makes Three and King and King among others have faced a fair amount of challenges, but teens encounter challenged books for both teen and adult audiences, the former frequently found in school and public libraries, the latter often used in the classroom. So, to promote awareness of Banned Books Week and intellectual freedom, I put up the display below in the teen section of the library, complete with bookmarks that offer further content in the form of eBooks available through the library.

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I’m happy to say the books have been flying off the shelves and have needed replenishing each day I’ve gone in. One of the important bits, I think, is to make sure visitors are aware that they can check out books on the display, so the bookmarks with eBook options were inserted into each book on display with “Check me out!” at the top. I used print books (both fiction and graphic novels) as well as audiobooks and the eBook collection. What are you doing for Banned Books Week?

Abby Reads: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013, 336 pages
YA Fiction

Banned Books Week is coming up, September 25 – October 1. In past years, I’ve found a banned or challenged book that I hadn’t yet read and read it that week. This year, I’ve already got a few books going (here’s looking at you, Alexander Hamilton — I’ll finish you one day!) and have too much going on to start something new. So, I asked myself, what other ways can I celebrate? Looking at my log of book-reviews-to-post, I remembered Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park had, at the very least, been challenged.  While I admit I find bits of the novel problematic myself (though the bits I find problematic are not the bits the parents found problematic), I proudly uphold the ethics of my profession and engage with the material, anyway, careful to read and think about it critically as we should with any material, not just those around which controversy swirls. This isn’t to say you can’t read a book for fun — certainly, you can, just as you can enjoy Miley Cyrus’s latest song while criticizing her for cultural appropriation. But regardless of the intent you hold when reading, remember to read responsibly, my friends. Without further ado, I therefore offer my review of a problematic fave, Eleanor and Park. (Okay, a bit of ado — read banned books! Happy Banned Books Week!)

If you know anything about young adult fiction, you’ve probably at least heard of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. I finally got around to this one several months ago and, like Fangirl, Eleanor and Park is hyper-realistic and features a rich teen romance between its two title characters. It’s unlike many of the more superficial teen romances I’ve read and that much, I enjoyed.

I’ll be up front, though, and tell you there’s a fair bit of racism in the book, something on which I’ll leave to those in the Asian community to discuss. I’ll only say the fetishization of Park as an (half-)Asian came up again and again, among other issues of the stereotyping and internalized racism variety. I get the sense that this racism came out of a place of ignorance rather than malicious intent, but it’s still an aspect of the novel that must be considered by its readers and discussed in a broader context. That’s all I have to say about that and I highly encourage you to seek out comments from individuals affected by this racism rather than relying on my very brief and inherently ignorant and white-influenced thoughts on the matter, whether you read the book or not.

Onward to things I do have some authority on. To take a step back, Eleanor and Park is about two high school students in Nebraska. When Eleanor returns to her home after some time away, she also returns to school and is quickly singled out as someone to be avoided. However, seats on the school bus are limited and Eleanor ends up sitting with Park, who loves comic books. As Eleanor and Park slowly share their love of music and comic books in 1980s Omaha, they discover their feelings for each other. But Eleanor’s home life proves to be a huge stumbling block that neither are quite ready to take on.

Rowell takes a good, hard look at difficult home situations involving abuse and poverty. As a result of taking these issues seriously and recognizing there are real teens with these real experiences, Rowell avoids “writing down” to her audience. It is this, in part, that makes Eleanor and Park an excellent read for not only teens, but adults, too, who may not expect to enjoy young adult fiction (but are missing out!). Additionally interesting, Eleanor is very clearly affected by her environment. Eleanor is not a good or nice person most of the time. She makes bad decisions and is often unlikable, but the reader is reminded that Eleanor is doing what she must to survive emotionally and mentally. This added layer of realism is striking and not one I see done well in most young adult fiction.

Another thing done well that is usually a disaster was the switch in point of view. I have this written in my notes as an aspect to discuss, but frankly, it was done so well that I had forgotten that it was even a thing. Switching points of view, even when the entire book is in third person, is one of my book pet peeves. Given that it didn’t bother me in Eleanor and Park, I’m inclined to take that as a hint that it was done well.

One other small thing – the book begins with a sort of whispy prologue in the form of an epilogue that I felt wasn’t truly necessary. While it offered a good deal of foreshadowing and set readers up to prepare themselves for a potentially sad ending, I don’t feel that it really added anything to the book or the experience of it. I see it as a way for Rowell to get two shots at the ending – while the official ending is beautiful, it does leave a little something to be desired, which ends up being found in the prologue. Had the prologue been somehow referred to in a grander way in the official end, pulling the book to a full circle, I might have appreciated it more. As it is, I could have done without it.

If you’re prepared to critically consider the racism in Eleanor and Park, the remaining elements of the novel are really pretty good. I did dock my rating below because of that racism, but I also don’t think it’s fair to discount the quality of prose and other elements because of what appears to be genuine ignorance and a lack of research and consultation. With the many criticisms out there on Eleanor and Park, I hope Rowell will take that feedback to make future work better while maintaining her otherwise well-done material.

 

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

Abby Reads: Down from the Mountain by Elizabeth Fixmer

Down from the Mountain by Elizabeth Fixmer
AW Teen, 2015, 288 pages
YA Fiction

I have this recurring interest in cults. (Same thing with serial killers, but this book wasn’t about serial killers.) Down from the Mountain by Elizabeth Fixmer is about fourteen-year-old Eva who, after nine years of living in the community known as the Righteous Path, is beginning to realize that perhaps her leader, Ezekiel, has it wrong. Confused about whether she wants to be one of Ezekiel’s wives as she’s been raised to be or if she wants to escape the community and the man she sees abuse her mother and friends, Eva meets Trevor on a rare trip down from the mountain who shows her Downthat outsiders aren’t as bad as Ezekiel makes them out to be.

Down from the Mountain is pretty formulaic as far as cult novels go. It’s very similar, in many ways, to Gated. One crucial and fascinating difference with this novel, however, is that Trevor is not Eva’s love interest. There’s an argument to be made that he becomes the love interest of another important character, but even then, it’s not definite and it’s not a focus. I found this hugely refreshing and, when Eva, fourteen, was introduced to Trevor, a college student, I was concerned it would go down that path. Fortunately, it didn’t. I wish Trevor had something more — there was something terribly interesting about him that I felt Fixmer never got around to sharing. His intentions become a bit shady for a while, but it’s easy to overlook them once he shows his willingness to truly help Eva — and I think it’s the actual motivation for helping Eva that makes this feel incomplete. Though it’s perfectly reasonable to expect people to be good to each other for no reason, Trevor risks an awful lot for a random fourteen-year-old girl, especially given that he’s just a boy in college. For those of you who don’t know, I went to a women’s college and didn’t spend any time around college-aged boys (and haven’t, really, to this day), but I had a hard time believing any college age boy would go to the lengths Trevor did for Eva.

In part, I worried it might go that way because Eva acts older than her age. This might be a symptom of having been practically raised in a cult and in difficult and unusual circumstances (there are few men; any husbands that were to the women who remain left when Ezekiel declared he was to “marry” the women who were of age). Eva doesn’t act significantly older than fourteen (almost fifteen), but I kept reading her as at least sixteen. The reminder of her age is especially important as she encounters issues like interacting with the outside world independently, driving, and spending time at the library.

Another thing immensely interesting about Down from the Mountain is that it is written by a woman who worked as a psychologist, sometimes for people who had left cult communities. This gave the author a different perspective to her novel than many other authors of novels about cults can offer. Despite this, I found the characterization of Ezekiel, while creepy, not as disturbing as that of Pioneer in Gated. When similarities between the two novels kept coming up, I couldn’t help but compare them in other ways. Where Gated had a fairly large community for the cult, Down from the Mountain‘s was smaller. Unfortunately, I felt this took away a lot of the urgency of the conflict. A larger community would have increased the sense of conflict.

As another central character, Rachel was in many ways more interesting than Eva. Older, and having decided to join the cult for herself rather than being brought into it by a parent, Rachel’s arc is infinitely more interesting to me. She, like Eva, often seemed older than her eighteen years, and took on the role of an older sister to Eva.

For my few complaints about the novel, Fixmer put together an interesting, if formulaic, narrative. The ending will, in part, surprise you — at least a little. I really appreciated Fixmer’s unwillingness to turn away from adult themes, both clinical and otherwise in nature, despite the young age of her character and, presumably, the bulk of her audience. With different cultural expectations within the cult, the issue of menstruation becomes enormously fascinating and one that is revisited throughout the novel, as is the topics of pregnancy and birth.

If you’re looking for a standalone read on cults, this isn’t a bad one. While Gated on its own was good, you might feel compelled to pick up Gated‘s sequel, Astray, which didn’t stand up to the quality of its predecessor. Though a bit back-and-forth with the character development, Eva eventually reaches a clear arc of growth. The novel lends plenty for discussion and would even make an excellent choice for a book club.

❤❤❤💔 out of ❤❤❤❤❤

 

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