Sunday, February 16, 2014

News! News! A Kind of Library Is Moving!

After 7 years of blogging here, I am so excited to share that I purchased the domain name "A Kind of Library" and starting today, this blog will be moving to:

I am so thankful to my husband, the very talented Daniel Warren, who was the technological, coding brainpower, and the inspiration behind the move.  If you are interested in redesigning your own blog, switching to wordpress, buying a domain name, making your page responsive so it adjusts to screens on all devices, etc. please get in touch.  Leave a comment for me or you can DM him on twitter

Daniel was also able to transfer my archives, labels, and links over to the new page, so my content will still be accessible in the new, cleaner look.  I can't wait for you to join me there! 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Coping with Violence in Young Adult Fiction: Hate List & Seeing One Another

Reading Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock led me to begin a study of how violence is portrayed in young adult books, which has made for a dark reading month, to be honest.  But in the same way that I said in my previous post, it has made me really consider the kind of adult I want to be with my students everyday.  Teaching 8th grade can feel like a roller coaster, but getting inside the minds of these protagonists is one of the best reminders of the struggles many of my students silently face and helps me remember the big picture in moments when it would be easy to let my anger, annoyance, or eye rolls reign.

The next one book I read was Hate List by Jennifer Brown, which is a story about a school shooting that leaves 6 students dead and many wounded.  The protagonist is Valerie, the girlfriend of the shooter, Nick, who was ignorant of his plan to kill, but implicated because she started a list of people they hated and Nick used it to pick his victims.  In the story, Valerie jumped up to Nick when he was shooting and inadvertently saved a girl who had harassed her.  Valerie took that bullet in her thigh and afterward Nick shot himself in the head.  The entire school wonders if Valerie was a hero or if it was a murder-suicide gone wrong.  The novel is Valerie's story as she goes back to school for her senior year five months after the shooting.

Brown intersperses present day (Valerie's family life, therapy sessions, loneliness) with flashbacks from  relationship with Nick (how Valerie had a place to feel understood and happy) as well as newspaper articles published about the shooting.  What I appreciate here is that young adult readers are able to really get inside the mind of the complex emotions that Valerie faces--guilt or whether her actions helped cause the tragedy, anger at Nick for not being upfront with her about it, losing Nick.  The combination continually asks the reader to consider perspective and how things appear don't always tell the whole story, and this is what teenagers (and adults) must remember:

“People do it all the time--assume that they "know" what's going on in someone else's head. That's impossible. And to think it's possible is a mistake. A really big mistake. A life-ruining one if you're not careful.” This quote from the story can be applicable to every character of the book--and every reader: Valerie didn't know what was going on in Nick's head, the kids who constantly made fun of them had no idea what was going on in either one of their heads, the parents didn't know, the teachers didn't know.  I wonder if what we can take away from this is that we must take the time to know people and their stories, which for me is what it always come back to--the importance of story. Teenage culture is a complex beast and there is no way to treat its darkness with simple adages.  So again, I am left thinking: 

Teenagers need this book.  

Teenagers need reading experiences that will let them talk about this book and push them to grow as people.  

Teenagers need adults who can read these books, enter into the conversations with them, and to remember that all is not as it seems.  

So, Brown takes the adolescent reader through the pain, necessity, and reality of moving forward.  She also takes me back to what Leonard Peacock said: "show me that it's possible to be an adult and be happy." At the end of the day, I feel a responsibility to offer students the possibility of hope.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Coping with Violence in Young Adult Fiction & Thinking About Who We Are As Adults

This post has been many weeks in the making.  After I finished The Luminaries, I picked up Matthew Quick's latest young adult novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. Quick wrote Silver Linings Playbook and also Boy 21, which I used quite a bit early in the school year with my students.  I am trying to organize a way for students to do an author study, so I set off to find comparisons between the two titles.  However, this turned into a theme study for myself, which has actually taken a lot out of me emotionally in the past few weeks.  On the first page of this story, Leonard Peacock is taking a picture of his breakfast and a gun, and we learn he is planning on killing one of his classmates and then himself later that day.

Just like I teach my students, I need to take to writing to make sense of what I've been reading lately.  This will be the first post in a series that focuses on how teenage violence is portrayed in literature.

I am incredibly liberal when it comes to kids reading what they want to read, especially my Brooklyn 8th graders who are not sheltered from life's truths.  What I love about most young adult literature, and why I think it is unhealthy for teenagers to jump straight into a diet of adult books and classics when they enter high school at 14, is that most young adult authors respect, love, and honor teenagers and their experiences.  These authors are courageous in going to the places that many teens are scared to bring to their parents.  These authors understand social-emotional development and their books often feel like therapy.  Their protagonists deal with real issues in real ways and generally find genuine, realistic resolution: peace, an ability to move forward, an understanding of change.  These authors haven't forgotten the pain, anger, and intensity of what it feels like to be an adolescent.  When kids skip straight to books with adult characters, they miss out on so many healthy learning experiences.

 However, as I continued to read Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, I felt more and more uncomfortable.  For an adult, I consider that a good thing: our reading should rattle us sometimes and force us to consider perspectives and experiences we would not otherwise encounter.  And actually, for young adults, I think this holds true most of the time, which is why I encourage my students to read books about people who are different from them.  But there was something deeply unsettling about this 17 year old character that made me stop and ask: are my 13 year old students ready for this?

Quick's story telling does not shy away from harsh realities of our overly imperfect world: Leonard's parents are non-existent, which has left enormous scars and every time he allows himself to hope for understanding from his mother, she disappoints him again.  He was abused by a peer. The ending of the story has hope, but it's not completely resolved and feels like a harsh (yet healthy) coming-of-age realization.   Quick does provide two adults who support and understand Leonard, in the form of an elderly neighbor with whom he watches old films and his social studies teacher.  These relationships also offer sound (not saccharin) advice to any teenager struggling with suicidal tendencies.  I'm wondering if my uncomfortableness with the story comes from myself not fully realizing the depth of pain teenagers can face--and perhaps me wanting to think none of my 8th graders have reached this level yet--though, I know for a fact that's not true.  And once I remember that fact, my uneasiness with the title makes me think that some teenagers need this story.

What I also realized, though, is that adults need this story, too--more so perhaps, than the page turning series that are so easy to devour (which also are important to read when you work with or have teenagers).  Quick's book is hard to read, and that is why we must.  Leonard Peacock's opinions about adults--surprisingly nuanced and mature--are the kinds of reminders adults need:

(Re: Vice Principal) Vice Principal Torres's face starts to turn eggplant purple as he says, "I don't have time for double talk this morning, Leonard." ...I was really trying to make a connection. I would have talked with him openly and honestly--no double talk at all--if he would have just sat down and taken a few minutes to be human.  What's so important that he couldn't take five minutes to look up at the sky with me? (37)

(Re: Mother) Show me its possible to be an adult and be happy. Please (46).

(Re: School Counselor) Deep down she absolutely knows I'm bullshitting her, I'm sure of it.  But she has a million problems to solve, hundreds of students who need her help, endless asshole parents to deal with, mountains of paperwork, meetings in that awful room with the round table and the window air-conditioning unit over the tropically hot boiler room, and so she knows the easiest thing to do is believe me.  She's fulfilled her obligation, assuaged her conscience by finding me in the hallway and giving me the chance to freak out, and I've played my role too, by remaining calm, pretending to be okay, and therefore giving her permission to cross me off her things-to-do-list (97).

These quotes make me wonder if the title is actually coming from the voice of his peer-abuser or from the adults who didn't notice what was happening.

So, I am left thinking about a few things at this point.  First, teenagers face incredible pain and as uncomfortable as some of the topics may be, books are part of the solution. Moreover, they need adults who can model how to be human in all its glory and hardship: how to be genuine with our emotions,  have meaningful relationships, and how to find joy amidst the struggle.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Sometimes you just need a book to get lost in.

There is something about making my way through a brick of a book that is so satisfying.  My friend Julie handed me her 830 page copy of The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and I decided I wanted it to be my companion for my December break, which meant lugging it in my carry-on and trying to creatively balance it while laying in bed reading.  But what its size guaranteed was I would have a single story to get lost in for at least a week (and as it turns out, it took me a couple--I blame staying up too late with my family while at home). 

The Luminaries is set in a growing town in New Zealand during its gold rush in 1866.  A new man arrives in town after being terrified by something he saw on the ship on his way there and accidentally stumbles into a criminal mystery involving a wealthy man who went missing, a prostitute who supposedly attempted suicide, a hermit who was found dead, and gold, of course. Soon enough, a cast of 12 men realized they have connections to the crime and we hear their different tales.  Catton structures the story against the planetary and stellar positions and says in her note to the reader that the story is Piscean in nature: "an age of mirrors, tenacity, instinct, twinship, and hidden things...which affirms our faith in the vast and unknowing influence of the infinite sky."  

Part of me wishes I read it with people, because I am certain there are intricacies I missed, but also I enjoyed just getting lost in the story and seeing how decisions and happenstance connect people and create a narrative force forged of money, hope, love, fear--the age-old motivations that exist around every corner, if you're a story hunter.  Just throw in some fate for good measure.  So, I wish that I had more intelligent things to say about this novel, but I treated it is now what I'll refer to as a "Christmas break" read--which sometime is exactly what you need. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

My Year as a Reader: Top Ten Books of 2013

I generally count my time in alignment school years: September is the new year and August is the month of reflection and generating new ideas for the coming year, so it's always interesting each December to examine and reflect on the calendar year.  And actually, it's probably healthier to not count my days by my profession.  This year was one of my favorites:

First and foremost, I got engaged on January 1st and our wedding in August was a celebration with family and friends I will truly never forget (especially my grandpa organizing the Yager family at the hotel bar Friday night, dancing to Gloria with my Uncle Bob at the reception, or my Brooklyn girls fulfilling their promise of charging to the dance floor as soon as the music started, hands in the air).

Personally, I have learned so much about paying attention to small moments of beauty and truth, breathing deeply, and taking the time to nurture creativity.  Professionally, this summer I had the opportunity to be inspired by kindred educators at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project's institutes, which has driven so much of the energizing work happening right now in my classroom and my ability to truly celebrate each of my students and their voices.

As a reader, I set a resolution at the end of last year to not buy any new books until I made it through the ones I already owned.  I did pretty well on that until the spring and it completely fell apart once June hit and I decided that summer reading was an exception.  Oops.  But, I did buy a kindle and used the kindle app on my ipad to read multiple book, and learned about how to check out e-books from the library.  Also, I'm such a fan of independent book stores, that it was hard to walk in and NOT buy something, just to show solidarity in their mission, especially Greenlight, Community Bookstore, and Book Court.

Regardless of how I got them, though, below are the ten best books that narrated my whole path this year:

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: This was story tucked into story tucked into story, told in a mirror image format that was the most challenging and most thought provoking fiction of the year. I couldn't stop thinking about the thread that tied the narratives together.

Quiet by Susan Cain: The subtitle really says it all for this one--the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking.  This was the best nonfiction book I read all year and help me to not just own my introverted nature, but think about how I can empower my introverted students.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman: This short book is for adults who have forgotten the magic of being a child. At once fantastical and realistic, this story was phenomenal and my favorite fiction book of the year.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness: My cousin and her son recommended this middle grade book to me and I think it is one of the most important I've ever read about life and loss.  I wept at the end, which is rare for me, and had a hard time recovering--but this is because it beautifully captured so much of what it means to be human.  The illustrations were breathtaking, as well.

The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy: Van Booy has become one of my favorite authors because of his poetic style and ability to capture tiny moments of humanity at its most beautiful.  As suggested by the title, it follows multiple story lines to show how people are much more connected to one another than we realize.

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson: I read mostly mystery for the month of August and this was my favorite by far.  Atkinson's protagonist is born in 1910 and the story continually resets itself and re-imagines what her life may have looked like.

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala: This memoir is one of the most discussed books of the year and Deraniyagala's story of grief after losing her husband, sons, and parents in the 2004 tsunami is heart-wrenching, powerful, brave, and important.

Everyday by David Levithan: This book was by far my favorite Young Adult read of the year.  The protagonist is, essentially, a soul--s/he inhabits a different body each day and the reader gets to experience this unique voice and watch as s/he tries to craft a life outside the inhabitation s/he cannot control.

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown: By far the most transformative nonfiction/personal growth book of the year, especially for this Type A/Oldest Child combination.  She helped me find some grounding and do a lot of the thinking work that propelled me from May onward through the year.

1,000 Mornings by Mary Oliver: This short book of (accessible!) poetry grounded me as the seasons changed and helped put some of the wisdom I took from Brene Brown to work.

(Looking for more recommendations for your reading year? Click here to read my year in review posts since 2007.)

As always, I'd love to hear your best recommendations & reading plans for the new year!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The magic of paying attention: Mary Oliver's "A Thousand Mornings"

{photoshop image, The Octopus Garden}

wrote about my favorite album of the year, Over the Rhine's Meet Me at the Edge of the World, back in September, which became an anchor for my soul this fall: an album I returned to countless times to be reminded of beauty and truth and the way I wanted to live. I also shared a link to an article I loved about their writing process.  In it, I found we shared a few common inspirations, which led me to check out some of the writers they mentioned, including Mary Oliver.  

Oliver's work is rooted in observing nature and cultivating a sense of place and in a quest to feel more grounded and aware, I took to reading her poetry collection A Thousand Mornings one poem at a time each day with my breakfast throughout October and November.  What I found while reading her work was that I began to look at the world around me in a different way.  Even though I live in a city, my eyes were sharpened and my breath deepened as I watched the rhythms of autumn and early winter around me.  I found myself staring at the patterns of leaf veins, and letting falling snow calm me down. 

I came across the image I included above while researching Oliver, and it has become a guide for me in pursuing a watchful spirit and a creative life.  Looking for reasons to be amazed, and living a life filled with wonder--especially when they don't cost a dime--is a game changer. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Everything was safe and good: transitioning from childhood adulthood

I recently finished The Round House by Louise Erdich, which is the story of 13-year-old Joe who lives on a reservation in North Dakota in the late eighties whose mother is brutally attacked and changes everything he held to be true.  On a large scale, this book brought to light the inane politics and laws surrounding crimes  against Native Americans by non Native Americans, both on and off the reservation land.  And on a smaller, it shows how people move from being the protected and defended as children to wanting to be a protector and defender.

If you've been reading here lately, I've been thinking a lot about living with a sense of rootedness--so when life gets busy or difficult, I am able to remember deep truths about life--and this lens is informing my entire reading life and what stands out to me in a text, and this book is no different. There is a moment mid-story when Joe hears his parents come home and instead of his father sleeping in the guest room, as he had been doing on request since the attack, they both went into their shared room: "I heard them shut their door with that final small click that meant everything was safe and good (210)."

There are things as children that enable us to feel secure and be able to rest.  (I've written about it before here and here.)  Part of growing up is becoming aware that life is fragile and often uncontrollable.  I often miss the sweetness of being young and thinking that everything "was ok" once both my parents made it home from work and we were all safe in the house.  And yet, I'm convinced that there is still truth behind feeling safe: resting in the fact that I am not in control, seeing patterns in the natural world, and knowing there is something bigger beyond that holds us together as humans.  It's a sense of safety that allows me to breathe deeply and not live in fear.

My school had our "Quality Review" last week and in the months, weeks, and days leading up to it, life at work was tense and stressful--a constant balancing act of hearing about the politics of education and things I needed to check off my list to play the game and remembering to look at my students and see them as people and remembering why I love my job in the first place.  On the second morning of the review, it started to snow pretty heavily.  My stomach was still in the knots it curled into since September, so I decided to take a minute in each class and turn off the lights and direct my students' eyes outside.  We sat in silence and watched the snow fall for a few moments and took deep breaths.  It was amazing.  And healing.

I am trying to cull my inner Mary Oliver (more on her poetry soon) and allow the both the tradition of family and rhythms of nature (yes, even here in the city) to remind me that there are seasons, there is beauty, and within each there is safety: here is the snow that comes every year.  It is cold, but it is beautiful.  Thinking I am "safe" it does not come quite as easily as it did when I was a child, but it is there, still.  

In the story, in a moment when he needs it most he wears his father's shirt to gather strength.  As an adult he wears his father's ties.  He is able to draw strength from tradition and memory and pattern and move forward, even when safety can't be defined as the click of a doorknob.  And this is what I am thinking on as I get ready to go home for Christmas: the strength I can draw on from the rhythms my family has created and the beauty and truth that lay hidden beneath.