Sunday, April 29, 2012

Book Review: Meet the Austins by Madeleine L'Engle (1960)

I have read several Madeleine L’Engle novels as an adult, but I’ve never made my way through the entirety of any of her series. I’ve decided that the best way to remedy this situation is to read the interconnected Murray-O’Keefe and Austin novels in the order in which they were published. This means, when I do finally finish this task, I will have read Meet the Austins, A Wrinkle In Time, The Moon By Night, The Arm of the Starfish, The Young Unicorns, A Wind in the Door, Dragons in the Waters, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, A Ring of Endless Light, A House Like a Lotus, Many Waters, An Acceptable Time, and Troubling a Star. After reading Meet the Austins, I’m really looking forward to the rest.

While I associate L’Engle with science fiction, this first novel about the Austins is completely realistic. The lives of the four Austin kids - John, Vicky, Suzy, and Rob - are upset when their uncle and his co-pilot are killed in a crash, and the co-pilot’s daughter, Maggy, comes to live with the Austins. Maggy is a brat when she arrives, and it takes the family a while to warm up to her. It is only when they must face the possibility that Maggy might return to her surviving blood relatives that they realize how much a member of the family she really has become.

The chapters in this book are definitely interrelated, but each one represents one particular episode out of the Austins’ lives. Each episode highlights the strength of the sibling relationships, the devotion of the Austin parents, but also the family’s idiosyncrasies and flaws that keep them from becoming saccharine portraits of perfection. One of my favorite episodes in the entire book is when all the Austins dress up as a well-to-do family in order to scare off their uncle’s unsuitable girlfriend. Even Mr. and Mrs. Austin are in on the joke, which really makes them seem real and alive to the reader. I also think Vicky’s relationship to Rob, and the entire family’s reaction when Rob goes briefly missing, are very touching elements to the story, and very well-described.

Above all, though, the chapter which gives the most insight into the Austin family’s role in the world is one that was left out of the first published edition of the book. It’s called The Anti-Muffins, and it tells of the Austins’ club, which is based entirely on the idea that it’s undesirable to be conformist. Muffins come out of the pan all the same, but the Austins strive against that, hoping for a world where it’s okay to be a little bit strange. Also in the club is a Hispanic boy named Pablo whose family is poor. His presence is said to be the reason the chapter was originally cut from the book. But thank goodness it was put back in. I skipped it on my first read-through to see what the story was like without it. It was still very good - the vocabulary is very rich, the style very enjoyable, etc. - but something about that Anti-Muffins chapter makes the book feel whole to me. I truly wish I had read this book as a child just for that chapter.

This book has quickly become one of my favorites, and it has me completely hooked on the Austin characters. I can tell already I’m going to enjoy this little reading exercise, and especially enjoy seeing where L’Engle takes these characters in the books I've yet to read.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Five Reasons I Became a Reader

I have been an avid reader for most of my life, so it always puzzles me when I hear people say they don’t read. What would I do if I didn’t read? I can’t even imagine it. But when I do stumble upon those people who don’t read for pleasure, it makes me reflect on why I turned out to be the kind of person who does. These are the reasons I’ve come up with:
  • My parents both read to me when I was little. From The Poky Little Puppy and Eloise to The Boxcar Children, and "The Cremation of Sam McGee", to Betsy-Tacy and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, my parents read to my sister and me right on up to our teens. Both my parents read with a lot of expression, and that really engaged me in every story we shared. I think it was also significant that we read together for the fun of it, even after my sister and I both knew how to read on our own. We watched a lot of TV in our family, and my father worked long hours that weren’t always conducive to being home at bedtime, but I was never told there wasn’t time to read, and I always looked forward to what would happen in the next chapter.
  • I’ve always been surrounded by books. In addition to reading to me, my parents also made sure I had my own collection of books. I can remember being only four years old and receiving the Weekly Reader books, and the Serendipity books in the mail. We always went to the library when I was small, and when I turned 10, it was the first place I was allowed to visit without my parents. We also made trips to bookstores - both the little Waldenbooks in the nearby shopping mall and the larger bookstores we passed on bigger shopping trips to larger cities. I can’t remember a time when I chose a book I was not allowed to have - I think our only limitation was on the number of books, or the maximum amount we could spend on a given day. I had my own bookshelf, which I remember organizing and reorganizing. I even tried getting my sister to play library with me, forcing her to check the books out and bring them back on time. I think it was especially important that I had my own books - they weren’t the family’s books, or even to be shared with my sister. She had her own, and I had my own, and sometimes we swapped, but we always knew whose was whose. I really felt a sense of pride about owning all those books, and I think I read more just because the books were there.
  • I aspire to write. I distinctly remember being six years old and telling my father, “Daddy, if you can read it, you can write it.” I assume I learned this nugget of wisdom from my first grade teacher (who was also my third grade teacher). She introduced me to Writer’s Workshop, this great program where kids write, revise, and then “publish” a final copy of their work. This is where I first learned how to properly punctuate dialogue, and where I truly began to understand how stories function. As I got older, my desire to write grew stronger, and I started keeping track of different quotations that meant something to me. In college, I took creative writing classes - and often my reading assignments for those classes were the only ones I managed to complete on time. Even now, when I read children’s books, there is a part of me that is always inspired to come up with my own stories. I don’t always do it, but even if I’m never anything more than “aspiring” I think the fact that I enjoy putting pen to paper and creating my own characters and plots keeps me interested in books.
  • Books provide escape. Middle school was a difficult time for me, but I was always able to find solace in a book. I can remember carrying Thames Doesn’t Rhyme with James and the first Baby-sitters Club Super Mystery around with me in my backpack during middle school, ready to pull them out at a moment’s notice. They were especially handy during less structured times like study hall and lunch, when bullies were out in full force and adults weren’t always on hand to discipline them. Somehow, putting a book in front of my face, even if I was reading the same passages over and over again, eased my anxieties and made middle school torment bearable. 
  • I became a librarian. This is a very chicken-or-the-egg type question - am I a librarian because I love books, or do I love books because I’m a librarian? Honestly, in my case, I think librarianship is what has given me the permission to read children’s books as an adult. I stopped reading for pleasure almost altogether once I went to college, and I think it was because I felt silly continuing to read kids’ books when my classmates were quoting philosophy texts. But once I made the decision to pursue librarianship, all bets were off. I fell in love with all the children’s books I had missed during my late teens and early twenties, and haven’t looked back since. 
What has shaped your reading life?  Why do you read? Comment below to share your experiences.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Five Reasons To Give Kids Their Own Library Cards

This is National Library Week. I’ll be visiting some of the local schools in the next few days to promote reading and to distribute brand new library cards. It amazes me how many people refuse to allow their kids to get library cards. I can only assume it’s because they don’t understand the advantages. Here are just five of my favorite reasons to get kids their own library cards.

  • Access to resources. Libraries are about much more than books. Kids with library cards can use library computers, do research on library databases, download audiobooks and e-books, and request items via interlibrary loan. Having their own cards allows kids to do these things even without a parent present, which becomes more and more important as kids age and become more independent. Many kids come to my library on their own after school, or with grandparents or babysitters, and the ones who don’t have cards are often unable to use the library to its fullest extent.
  • Agency. Allowing a child to have a library card sends the message that he/she is mature enough to choose his/her own books. This is important at every age, but especially for kids who have recently become independent readers. For the first time, these kids don’t have to rely on an adult to read stories to them. They can discover stories on their own and start to determine what types of books they enjoy. Some parents worry that kids will only read “junk” if given the choice, but I actually think having a library card helps children make the first step toward being selective readers. If kids have to be responsible for their own library materials, they become that much more invested in what they choose to borrow.
  • Pride. Related to the freedom to choose one’s own books is the confidence and sense of pride that comes from having a library card. A library card is one of the few things a child can have that an adult can also have, and kids feel special when they realize that fact. Kids also get a boost of self esteem when they realize their parents and guardians trust them enough to take on the adult responsibility of checking out, caring for, and returning library materials.
  • Print motivation. Print motivation is an early literacy skill, and it refers to a child’s enjoyment of books. Allowing a child to apply for a library card is just one way to model a love of books and reading. Kids take their cues from the adults in their lives - especially their parents - and they will be more likely to see the fun and excitement of reading if the adults in their lives also share that excitement. Giving a child a library card teaches him/her that libraries are important, worthwhile places, and that library materials are worth borrowing.
  • Library skills. Having and using a library card exposes a child to the library environment and staff. When he/she visits the library, he/she learns how it is organized, how to search for information, and whom to ask for assistance. When they check out books, kids interact with librarians and other library workers, and develop a relationship to those people, and to the library itself. This relationship can mature along with the child, and stay with him/her well into adulthood.
Does your child have a library card? Do you remember getting your first card? Share your thoughts in comments!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Book Review: In Summer Light by Zibby O'Neal (1985)

This 1985 coming of age novel is the story of Kate, the daughter of a famous artist, who returns home from boarding school with mononucleosis and must, against her wishes, spend the summer with her family. Most disgusting to her about her stay at home is her father’s attitude toward everyone around him, as though they live to serve his whims. Kate has been subject to this treatment herself, as her father once painted a picture of her, and then dismissed her presence in it, stating that it didn’t matter whom or what was in the picture, because it was the painting style, not the subject, that was important. Kate’s resentment over this and other slights has caused her to stop painting altogether, and it’s also making it difficult to write her paper on the Tempest, since Prospero reminds her so much of her father. The only bright spot in the summer is Ian, the graduate student staying with the family while he researches Kate’s father. Kate admires Ian, and respects his opinion, and before the summer is over, she falls in love with him and with painting all over again.

This novel is rather serious in tone, and highly introspective. O’Neal uses beautiful, direct, language to paint very specific pictures in the reader’s mind of each of the characters, Kate’s home, and especially her father’s artwork and attitude surrounding it. Because the narration is in third person, there is sometimes a feeling of distance or disconnection from Kate, but the reader never stops being invested in the story at any point. Kate’s anger toward her father, and her desire to make her own decisions and to have an identity separate from her dad’s create such interesting moments of inner conflict that the reader can’t help but keep reading, if only to enjoy the emotional rollercoaster. Kate’s feelings for Ian also contribute to those ups and downs by adding a layer of tension to the story, and providing the middle ground between Kate’s hurt feelings and her father’s continual cold shoulder.

I read a brief “report” on this book in Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, which is what inspired me to read it, but I had no idea I would love it so much. The story is predictable in many ways and follows a certain formula I think many coming-of-age stories adhere to, but every word is so carefully chosen, and there are many gorgeous passages that I actually read aloud to myself so I could enjoy the language that much more. Though it’s cataloged as juvenile fiction in my library system, the only comparisons I could really make in terms of subject matter were to YA titles like That Summer, Up a Road Slowly, and A Separate Peace. I think it would appeal to readers who like those, and I also think it would work well in a classroom setting. There is so much to analyze and so much to learn in just O’Neal’s writing alone.

What a disappointment that a book like this is out of print! I can’t name very many contemporary realistic fiction coming-of-age novels, so maybe it’s a genre that has fallen by the wayside in children’s literature in recent years, but this book is so well-written, and really not very dated at all, so it’s hard to believe there wouldn’t still be a market for it. If you can get your hands on a copy, give it to strong readers in grades 5 to 8 who like literary, complex stories about family life, growing up, and moving on.