Monday, April 12, 2010

Why I Read YA

After Dr. Irwin’s lecture last Thursday night, I started thinking about why I read YA.  I’ll be up front and say that I don’t read widely in YA.  My experience with these books is in the fantasy genre only.  I can’t think of any other YA book that I’ve read since becoming an adult.

So why go back to YA now?

Firstly, adult fantasy authors don’t really do it for me.  They have decent worlds, but I think in general they try too hard.  I love The Lord of the Rings, so it’s not like I’m averse to weird names, but most of the time I feel like fantasy authors are slinging around the most obscure words they can fathom simply to remind me that I’m reading a fantasy.  I don’t have that problem with YA fantasy.

There is also that pesky issue of leisure time.  I try to find an hour to read every night, but most days I’ve been reading technical material all day at work, and that is usually followed by some reading for class.  At the end of the day, my brain is tired, and reading a YA book is so much more relaxing.

Mostly, though, I think it comes down to making up for lost time.  As a personal preference, my parents don’t like fantasy.  I was soundly discouraged from reading or watching anything not firmly grounded in the real world.  I didn’t see Star Wars until I was 23, and I didn’t even know there was a book called The Lord of the Rings until I was 19.  (By the way, that’s 2003—2 years after the movies started coming out.  I was raised to be that oblivious.)

I’m not really that much like my parents.  I understand why they’re realists, and I respect that about them.  But I’m a dreamer and a mystic and an idealist. I’d much rather be in a spaceship or an elf kingdom. That’s how I find truth—by first seeing it in an imaginary world.

I was going to use this blog post to rant about the Twilight article we read last week.  (I take issue with anything or anyone who claims Twilight is a good book).  But I think Flanagan really does have a point.  When we feel that we’ve lost something, we cling to whatever gives us pieces of it back. Because I didn’t realize how much I love fantasy until I was an adult, I skipped right over all the wonderful YA books I could have been reading.  I read these books now, partly, to reclaim something I never had in the first place.

Hopefully that’s not too saccharine.  I apologize if my reminiscing made anyone gag.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Readers Advisor is In

Reader A
Reader A is a voracious reader and sometimes finishes five or more novels in a single week.  I started off with a pretty standard question for all of these interviews: ‘What are you interested in reading?’  I barely got a word in edgewise after that question.  It was clear she loves books, has read a lot, and knows exactly what she likes.

She mostly reads Christian Fiction because she wants “safe” books.  What I found out with follow up questions was that Reader A enjoys history, particularly World War II.  Her definition of “safe” does not mean non-violent.  In fact, her favorite reading subject is the Holocaust.  Not the ‘we escaped the Nazis’ plots, but the ‘we’re in Auschwitz and everybody died’ books.  I asked if she was willing to read outside of Christian Fiction, and she said that she was, but emphasized they couldn’t be “filthy” books.

Since Reader A wanted “clean” books, I immediately knew I would have to stick to Gentle Reads.  I turned to our textbook since Saricks has long lists of Gentle Reads.  I first recommended The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer because it is set during WWII,  but all the copies were checked out of Reader A’s library.

I had recently read a book called The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell.  I asked Reader A if she had ever read any books about China during WWII.  She said no, and then her face lit up.  She immediately decided that was the kind of book she wanted to read.  Maybe a personal recommendation wasn’t the right way to go, but the book truly did fit Reader A’s interests.

After Reader A finished the book, she called me to say that she really enjoyed it and that she would like to read more novels set in Asia.  I guess I did something right, because she asked if I was available for more recommendations.  I get the feeling I’m going to end up being her personal MPAA complete with rating and warnings.

Reader B
Reader B was Reader A’s polar opposite.  It was like pulling teeth to get any information from her.  I finally got something useful when I asked: ‘Do you have any hobbies, topics, or interests that you like to read about?’  Reader B enjoys non-fiction books about professional ethics and character values.  She reads to better herself as a teacher and person.  Her favorite books are character profiles and memoirs that discuss family sociology and traditional values.  

I’ll admit it.  I was completely stumped by this one because I hadn’t read any of the information on non-fiction Readers Advisory yet.  I sat there for a few minutes, wondering how I could trick Reader B into accepting a fiction book.  Then I remembered that Readers Advisor Online has tools for nonfiction.  (This was a great learning moment for me!  I normally panic if I don’t know the answer.)

The first book I recommended was a memoir called Out of Silence: A Journey Into Language by Martin Russell.  Reader B was really interested in it, but said she’d just finished a book about a disabled child, and she didn’t want to start another one.  With rising dread, I browsed some more and included the search term ‘teacher.’  I finally found a book called I am a Pencil: A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories by Sam Swope, and Reader B decided she would give that one a try.

I was really nervous about Reader B’s response.  I felt I had done a spectacularly bad job in the interview, and she hadn’t seemed very enthusiastic about my recommendation.  I was surprised to find that she liked the book and really admired the teacher who wrote it.   

Reader C
Reader C said reading is one of her favorite hobbies, but she usually rereads her favorite books and branches out only when a friend recommends a new title.  She said her favorite topics are historical, especially the Civil War and Ancient Egypt.  When I asked who her favorite authors were, she said J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling.  I was pretty surprised considering they don’t write about the Civil War or Ancient Egypt, but I didn’t mention it.

These authors are pretty diverse, so in the interview I tried to pinpoint what she wanted.  My next question was: ‘So what do you like about those authors?’  I started to suspect she was telling me what she thought I wanted to hear when she answered, ‘Their writing styles.’  I realized I wasn’t going to get straight answers with such board questions, so I narrowed down my inquiries.  When I commented that those authors write about the supernatural or fantastical, she acknowledged that was her favorite thing about them.  We decided we would look for books about the supernatural in an historical setting.

I remembered reading about a series of Egyptian mysteries in our textbook.  I found a summary of one of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody novels Crocodile on the Sandbank, and Reader C responded that she wanted “realistic supernatural stuff.”  I asked her to clarify, and found out that she thinks mummies are too unbelievable, but witches and vampires are okay.

Because we were looking for something so broad, I went to Readers Advisor Online so I could search and then narrow or expand the results very easily in the sidebar.  Anne Rice was in every group of search results, so I suggested The Witching Hour and Interview With the Vampire.  I also recommended The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.

Reader C decided to read Interview With the Vampire.  After finishing, she said that she liked the book, but she wasn’t sure if she would read others in the Vampire Chronicles series.  Rice’s mythology wasn’t exactly what she wanted.   She said it “wasn’t as bad as Twilight,” but she was looking for more supernatural elements, and Rice’s vampires are too human for Reader C.   

Reader D
I think Reader D is most like the patrons we’re likely to see at the desk for readers advisory.  My other participants were avid readers and could give a quick yes or no to my recommendations.  Reader D was a lot more hesitant.

He does not spend much time reading, so he didn’t really know what he was looking for. Questions like: ‘What are you interested in reading?’ came with long, rambling answers followed by ‘I’m sorry.  I just don’t know.’  His only favorite book is My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George.  I used that as a starting point to ask more specific questions, like ‘Would you be interested in reading a book about nature and survival?’

I used Fiction Connection and NoveList because they had the best information about My Side of the Mountain.  I recommended Last of the Breed by Louis L’Amour.  Reader D read the first paragraph, and I could tell from his expression he was only accepting the book because he didn’t know how to ask me for something else.  I also gave him Call of the Wild by Jack London.  I offered to find some true survival stories, but he’d already decided on Call of the Wild.

After several weeks of hearing nothing from Reader D, he finally admitted to me that he hadn’t finished the book.  I asked him his opinion, and since he’s the type of person who takes you at your word, he let me know exactly what he thought about it.  He said that he didn’t dislike the book; he hated it.  We talked for a few minutes about what he didn’t like, and I realized that I’d made a huge error giving him a book published in 1903.  He wanted a contemporary author, but he hadn’t known how to tell me that in the interview.

I told Reader D I would look for another book that he might like more, but he was adamant that I shouldn’t waste my time.  He has no intention of reading another book for quite awhile.  He did agree that I could help him whenever he does feel like trying again.  I have a feeling I probably wouldn’t be given a second chance if he didn’t know me, so I’m going to take him up on the offer and see what else I can learn the second time around. 

Reader E
In some ways, it was easier to interview Reader E because we use the same vocabulary.  She was full of references to “genre” and “OPAC” because she’s a librarian.  It was also very difficult because she assumed RA was the same thing as telling her what she should read.   I tried to reassure her that this was all about her, but I don’t think she ever really believed me.  She was pretty defensive about her reading preferences from the start.

Reader E said she enjoys Christian Fiction.  Unlike Reader A, she was very hesitant about reading anything else.   At this point, I felt like I was interviewing Reader B all over again.  If there’s anything I’ve read less than nonfiction, it’s Christian Fiction.  In discussing the themes and topics she enjoys reading about, I realized that her favorite titles would be considered Women’s Lives and Relationships if they weren’t Christian Fiction.

The first place I went was Fiction_L and did a search for Reader E’s favorite series, The Yada Yada Prayer Group by Neta Jackson.  I found a few suggestions, but she had already read Sisterchicks on the Loose by Robin Jones Gunn, and I felt like it was cheating to suggest Neta Jackson’s next series.

I turned to our textbook to see if I could find any overlapping books between the Gentle Reads and Women’s Lives and Relationships chapters.  I found one that sounded promising, Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik.   Since that’s the only possible title I found there, I turned to my favorite RA tool, Readers Advisor Online.  The last suggestion I found was Saturday Morning by Lauraine Snelling.

Reader E decided she would take a leap and leave Christian Fiction for a little while.  She read Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons.  Unfortunately, leaving the Christian Fiction comfort zone didn’t work out as well for Reader E as it did for Reader A.  She said that the story was fine, and actually pretty enjoyable, but she really missed the messages of faith and scripture references.

My Reflections
I’m really big on talking about experiences, and I think that’s what a blog is for anyway, so I’ve decided to add some of my own reflections here.  This assignment was very fun and very stressful.  I had a blast talking about books and looking for recommendations.  It was the waiting to hear back from the readers that I found so unnerving.

I have a pretty even spread of reader responses, and all of my readers gave me helpful feedback whether they liked the book they read or not.  I’m really relieved that my friends and family felt comfortable giving me constrictive criticism instead of just placating me.

I’ve identified some things I know to work on before I do readers advisory again.  I think I probably started searching for books before I thoroughly understood what the readers wanted, and my course correcting in the middle of the interview didn’t always work out so well.

Doing this type of project was definitely outside of my comfort zone, but I’m really glad that I picked this lab.  The whole experience of connecting readers with books was very rewarding.