Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Review: Perfectly Good White Boy

Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian. Carolrhoda Lab. 2014. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: Sean's starting his senior year at school not quite sure about, well, anything. He and his mom had to move out of their home into a crappy rental, so "home" isn't really home. His amazing summer girlfriend has left for college, breaking up with him first.

He has a few good things in his life. Like his friendship with his coworker, Neecie. And he's figured out how an average student with no hopes for any type of scholarship can get out of town: join the Marines. Which no one expects, in part because Sean isn't telling anyway.

A year in the life of an average, not so average teen boy.

The Good: Sean, Sean, Sean. I just -- he's just such a teenage boy. And that's what is so terrific about him: he's no one special. And in being no one special, he's very special.

Sean's family has fallen apart, including the move into the rental, and Sean does the best he can. He's neither super son nor super slacker.

Sean's summer relationship with Hallie is amazing and sweet and so obviously a summer romance and here's where things get interesting. Because Hallie breaks up with him because COLLEGE. So of course she does. And Hallie is -- a good girl. Excited about school. And here is where I love the writing, because of what becomes obvious about Hallie even though this story isn't about Hallie, it's about Sean. But -- and it takes a long time for Sean to realize this through his own pain and hurt and want and lust -- it's clear that college isn't what Hallie thought it would be or should be, and at first she comes home to use Sean and physically connecting with him, and later it's clear that she's even more lost than that. And even through Sean's pain and anger, and even when Sean sees Hallie as much as a source for sex as anything else, Hallie is always a whole and complete teenage girl. Even when Sean doesn't see it, the reader does. (I mean, at times I hated Hallie for hurting Sean yet at the same time..... I want more of her story, of the stories for kids admitting that college is not the happy-ever-after that people think it is.)

And then there is Neecie, and Sean's becoming friends with her, and maybe something more. And it's just another example of complex people, and Perfectly Good White Boy having even the secondary characters be whole people.

One more thing: I also love Mesrobian's way with words. "It was like she'd never been caught at anything and didn't know how to be sneaky, almost." And it's clear that she's a good girl but who thinks she is being bad, and that he's gotten away with a thing or two, and it tells so much in so few words.

Oh, I lied. One more one more. I also love how matter of fact Sean's choice of joining the Marines is. I'm not sure what other books takes the reader through all the steps that a high school senior takes in joining up, and does so in a non-judgmental way.

Yes. A Favorite Book Read in 2014.

Other reviews: Cite Something; Just a Couple More Pages; Bibliodaze.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, December 29, 2014

Review: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton. Candlewick Press. 2014. Reviewed from ARC. Morris Finalist.

The Plot: To understand Ava Lavender and her wings, you have to understand her mother and her grandmother before her. So Ava tells the story of the three generations of women in her family, of their loves, and how they survived heart break and loss.

And how Ava was born with wings, and how that shaped her life.

The Good: Yes, Ava was born with wings -- The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a beautifully written work of magical realism. Ava's being born with wings is something obvious to the world, but there are other things throughout the book, from a sister who turns herself into a bird to ghosts to how the women in Ava's family sometimes see or hear or smell the world around them.

I loved the language of this book, and began jotting down phrases almost from the start: "Foreseeing the future, I would later learn, means nothing if there is nothing to be done to prevent it." "My whole heart for my entire life."

When telling the story of her mother Viviane and grandmother Emilienne, the women who raised her, Ava concentrates mostly on their loves and lost loves and betrayals of their teen years. And while the introduction mentions things that Ava does as a grown woman, the story in the book -- like the stories of Vivane -- takes place during Ava's teen years. Obviously, Emilienne and Viviane grown older, but the most important part of their lives -- the part that Ava talks about -- are the parts when they are young women.

I mention this in part because, given the multiple generation storytelling and that Ava's own story doesn't start until half way through, it's tempting to wonder why this is a young adult book and not an adult book. I know I did -- but I think it's because, in part, the most important things that happen in Emilienne and Viviane and Ava's lives, the things that shape them, the things the book are about are all events from their years as young women.

I can easily see who I would recommend this book to -- the language is lovely and lush. Readers who like magical realism. Teens who want something different from a reading experience. And book discussion groups -- there is a lot to talk about and examine and analyze.

I have to confess something, though. This is the book that shows I can read not just as a reader, but as a librarian, looking to see who would like a book and also recognizing just how great a book. But. And sorry -- but this isn't a book for "me", as a reader. If I were on a committee, I would be open to persuasion and open to arguments about why to vote for this book. But for me, the way that loss and despair practically broke Emilienne and Vivianne for so long -- it just was too depressing. And (more spoilers) there is a violent attack at the end that bothered me not so much from the realism of the violence and hatred, but for what was behind it. Again: this is a personal, reader reaction. That's about me, not the book.

Other reviews: the School Library Journal Someday My Printz Will Come blog; Steph Sinclair at the Tor blog; A Book and a Latte.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Friday, December 26, 2014

Review: The Story of Owen

The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim by E. K. Johnston. Carolrhoda Books. 2014. Library copy. Morris Finalist.

The Plot: Siobhan, 16, explains how she met Owen, a dragon slayer in training, and became his bard.

Oh, and did I mention -- the setting is modern day Canada? It's a world where dragons are, and always have been, real. Real, dangerous, and deadly.

Being a bard is more than singing songs or writing ballads; it's becoming so close to the dragon fighter, and the dragons, that the bard can accurately portray what happens: both the actual truth, and the emotional truth.

Which means Siobhan, an introverted musician, is going to have to get close to Owen...and the dragons. Which are real, dangerous, and deadly.

The Good: Love!

This gets on my Favorite Books of 2014 easily, because it has so many elements I just adore.

First is the alternate universe Canada, and seeing how The Story of Owen takes familiar history and culture (from Dracula to World War I) and having dragons be part of those stories. It made the dragons and Siobhan's world more real; it was fun; and it was impressive to see just how deep a backstory and world had been created. For example, the United States' "don't ask, don't tell" policy exists in this world and it means that Hannah, a talented blacksmith (and Owen's aunt by marriage, she's married to his aunt Lottie) defects to Canada.

Second is the relationship between Siobhan and Owen. This is going to be a bit of a spoiler, so sorry -- but this is a story of friendship not romance. It's about Siobhan and Owen becoming friends, and about Siobhan's growing friendship with other people at her school. Before Owen comes to town, before Siobhan agrees to be his bard, all Siobhan needed was her music. Becoming Owen's bard doesn't just mean she becomes closer to Owen; she develops relationships with more people in her community.

Third is that while this is a story about Owen, it's also about a society that needs dragon slayers but for reasons the book explains, the majority of dragon slayers are working in the military or being paid by corporations. They aren't local; they aren't taking care of smaller communities; and they aren't really emotionally connected to the average person. In The Story of Owen, Lottie has realized the flaws in this system and is using her nephew and Siobhan to correct it.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Sense and Sensibility and Stories; Quill and Quire.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Review: The Family Romanov

The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace FlemingSchwartz & Wade, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books. 2014. Reviewed from ARC. YALSA Nonfiction Finalist.

It's About: The story of the last Russian Tsar and his family. It begins with privilege, power, and opulence. It ends in a bullets and bayonets in a basement.

The Good: Like many, the story of Nicholas and Alexandra fascinated me as a child and teen. The combination of the tragedy of their deaths and the young ages of their children (ages 13 to 21 at the time of the executions) with the mystery of Anastasia made this irresistible. My serious introduction to the topic was Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie.

What I like about The Family Romanov is that it doesn't just depict the world of the Romanovs. It also includes stories about the workers and peasants, to put into context not just the vast differences between the Tsar and those he rules but also to understand why a violent revolution happened.

The Family Romanov portrays Nicholas and Alexandra as complex, complicated people. They are a young couple in love, who have a gravely ill son, whose love and loyalty survive. They love all their children, creating a protected world for them.

Alexandra is deeply religious with a firm belief that prayers can cure her son. This leads her to Rasputin, and Fleming shows just why Alexandra was so willing to believe in Rasputin and his abilities.

Nicholas believes that as the Tsar, he is and should be all powerful. At the same time, he's not an outgoing man or a micromanager: he is content to be with his family rather than in the seat of power.

What struck me about Nicholas and Alexandra was how deeply they believed in their power and privilege due to their birth and bloodlines, but how little either had been educated or prepared to live up to that power and privilege and responsibility. Reading how Nicholas's war effort included sleeping in, good dining, and playing cards while his soldiers didn't have ammunition or clothes was almost impossible to believe. Except Fleming went into detail about the education being provided to their children, and how limited and sparse and undemanding it was, and the reader imagines that these two gave their children what they had been given.

There were some things I wondered about, but it falls more under "this is a book that made me want to know more" than "this book failed to mention something" -- no one book can include everything. The family Romanov is Nicholas, Alexandra, and their five children. It is not his brothers or sisters, and it is not about his relatives. When I read about his sister Olga, I wanted to know how she survived, how she got out of Russia -- but that is beyond the intended scope of the book.

I also wondered about Alexandra, a woman who loved her family but clearly wasn't meant for a public life. There was something sweet about her devotion to her husband, about their love match, about how close the family was. Yet, at the same time, she (and Nicholas) used that closeness as a reason to hide from the world and responsibility, it seemed, to everyone's detriment. Had they just  been a rich family, it wouldn't have mattered -- but Nicholas was the ruler of Russia. And that wasn't a titular head, or in name only, only for important events. It was total, absolute control. Or as one person laments late in the book, "oh, how terrible an autocracy without an autocrat!"

Because this gave me a fuller picture of the family, and provided a good background of their times, this is another Favorite Book of 2014.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, December 22, 2014

And Santa Brought A Ferret....

I am sharing -- with permission -- the letter that my niece wrote that resulted in her getting a ferret for Christmas.

Names have been changed.

Friday is almost here, the second best day of my life.* I am beyond excited to get my second ferret.  I know you're a little hesitant to allow me to buy and take care of a second ferret. I am begging you to let me get a second angel, and i’ll tell you why. Many people on instagram, and youtube support the idea of getting a second ferret, I hope you can too.

When I get my second ferret I will not ignore or neglect Oliver**, I will continue to care for both of them with the same love and affection. Maybe even additional affection. The second ferret is not replacing Oliver in any shape or form. Its just an additional ferret, the reasons are to improve Oliver’s health and to improve my joy levels as well. I have showed you that I am responsible for my ferret. I clean his cage every week, I scoop his litter each day. I change his food and water, and give him lots of toys and playtime. I can handle a second ferret. Its really no more daily effort to care for a second ferret. Additional costs and care do not show through until you have at least 6 ferrets.

I know what you're thinking, “This one can just get sick too.”*** You are absolutely correct, it can get sick just like Oliver. Although, the chances of that happening so early are slim. Adrenal Disease normally does not affect ferrets until they are at least 4 years old. If Oliver does indeed have this awful disease its a rare case. Whatever is going on with Oliver is an issue with his hormones and immune system. Its genetic and is not contagious. While the new ferret can become sick, he cannot catch any illnesses from Oliver.

Let me go ahead and answer some questions for you. “Will I have to take care of it?” No, it will be the same for when I am at dads, and the same when I return. “Do we need a second cage?” No, Ferrets are social animals who love to be together, Its recommended to house 2+ ferrets together. “What if its not trained?” Ferrets will actually do the training for you. Once you have one litter trained ferret, it will train everyone else. Same for tricks and obedience.

Just think for a second, how often do you see Oliver? Not often, he’s in my room unless I bring him to see you. If I didn't bring him out to see you might not even know I had a ferret. This second ferret will be the same. Please understand its not a huge deal to have multiple ferrets. Imagine Oliver was a hermit crab, if I added a few hermit crabs**** to my tank would there be any difference in cost or care? No not really, once you have a system you keep that system with no added fees. When I got Oliver it was costly because I was still getting on that program. Now, I am that program. Getting a second, or even a third ferret would not affect you in a negative way. They eat so little food it doesn't even have a dent in the bills. Each week I take a drinking glass and take one scoop of cat food and that lasts a week, he eats very little. I think that since i’m the caregiver I should decide how many ferrets I can handle.

To continue, I think the high cost of a ferret deters you from allowing me to get more. While yes they are exotic pets they are easy to care for pets. Some hermit crabs and fish cost well over $100. The high cost of ferrets is because they are difficult to breed and have a high demand so pet stores can charge more. Don’t let the cost steer you away. Ferret’s aren’t like cats. Getting an additional cat costs a lot more monthly, an additional cat is a big deal*****. But an additional ferret is like getting another frog******, fish,******* or hermit crab.  I already have the supplies its really not that big of a deal,

The ferret won’t just be fun for me, it will be fun for Sam******** and oliver. 2 ferrets is twice the fun, me and sam will have so much fun with them. Sam loves Oliver, he is always playing with him. Imagine the joy on his face when hes playing with 2 carpet sharks. And Oliver will have so much fun with a friend of his own. I am even planning to bring oliver to Petco so he can pick out the friend he wants.

So please mom let me get this Christmas present, I understand it would be my only present from Nana and Lizzy. Please mom, It would mean a lot, the Magic 8 ball said yes, can you too?

*The best day -- in anticipation that the second ferret will be joining the family on Friday.

**The niece already has a ferret. Whose name is Oliver. Oliver Dixon, actually: I chose the Dixon. For Daryl. This plea is for a second ferret.

***Oliver may or may not be sick. Diagnosis so far has been by Internet. 

****She also has hermit crabs. I've lost track how many.

*****Current cat count: three.

******Frog count: two.

*******Well, there are the fish in the pond that used to be a hot tub. And the multiple tanks in the house. Mainly beta fish. Count? A lot.

********Sam is my nephew. His name isn't Sam. Names were changed, remember?

Did the letter work? Well yes, it did!

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Friday, December 19, 2014

Review: The Astronomer Who Met The North Wind

The Astronomer Who Met The North Wind by Kate Hall. Book Smugglers Publishing, 2014. Review copy from publisher. Short story.

The Plot: The Astronomer Who Met the North Wind, a short story, is part of the Fairytale Retellings series being published by Book Smugglers Publishing. As you've probably guessed from the title, it's a retelling of The Princess Who Met the North Wind.

An astronomer and his wife have a daughter, Minka. Minka's parents go on scientific expeditions; during one, when Minka is six, her mother gets ill and dies.

Afterwords, her father is very protective of her, including his insistence that Minka not become an astronomer.

When Minka turns twelve, her father gets her the types of gifts he thinks a girl would want and should want.

Needless to say, they are not the types of things one girl -- his girl -- his daughter, Minka -- wants.

Minka decides to prove him wrong, and gets some help from the North Wind.

The Good: All the good things! First, I adore the Book Smugglers so was eager to read one of the short stories they were publishing. Second, I adore fairytale retellings and reinventions. Third, I love short stories in part because it's so nice to be able to sit down and finish a story in one seating.

Of course, none of those things are what makes this particular short story a terrific story. What makes The Astronomer Who Met the North Wind fabulous is the writing. Here is Minka, following the disappointing birthday gifts: "Minka leaned on her windowsill and wiped her eyes.  Her stomach churned, bitter, and even when she heard her father call her name softly through the door, she let her angry silence answer for her."

The North Wind comes along, and both tempts and encourages Minka to leave her home, alone, at night, into the dark and the cold, in order to find a mystery comet before her father does.

Even for a short story that is a retelling, I don't want to spoil it. Let's just say, that the North Wind is not what he appears to be. And that Minka has to find her own strength and courage to move forward.

What I can say, without spoiling, is that I liked Minka's desire to be an astronomer and that it was shown to be complicated. Even before her mother's death, she's described as a girl who loves geometry and solving puzzles; a gift of a telescope from her father helps her in the days after her mother's death. Her father's not wanting her to be an astronomer is based, in part, in not believing a child really knows what she wants to do with her life, and also in that it's not appropriate for a young girl, but also, just as importantly, in not wanting to lose his daughter. That all these things are shown, so that the father is never portrayed as a villain, and are shown in so few words, is one reason why I love short stories.

Kate Hall knows how to use words, and more importantly, knows how to make them count.

One last word, one last confession: the North Wind was scary.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Review: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. Nancy Paulsen Books, published by the Penguin Books. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Woodson uses poetry to tell the story of her childhood, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. She was born in Ohio; moved to South Carolina; and later to New York City. It's a story of Woodson growing up, and learning more about the world around her, and learning how to process that world using words and stories.

The Good: First, yes, this book is wonderful. Perfect. Amazing. I was so, so happy to see it selected as the National Book Award Winner for Young People's Literature. I mean, there is so much out there that already establishes this as terrific, what do I have to add to the conversation?

Brown Girl Dreaming starts with Woodson's birth in 1963:

I am born in Ohio but
the stories of South Carolina already run
like rivers
through my veins.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a look at what shapes one girl, born in Ohio in 1963, following her childhood until about fifth grade. And so on one level, the "obvious" level, it's a book aimed at those who are the child-Woodson's age.

It's also about a young African American girl in the 1960s and 1970s, living both in the South and the North, and her many worlds: the world of immediate family of mother and siblings, the bigger world of grandparents and aunts and uncles, the world of friends and school, and then civil rights and what that meant, or didn't mean. And all those things, while being told by a child, are things that readers of all ages are interested in.

For Brown Girl Dreaming, the age of the protagonist doesn't dictate the age of the reader; rather, the interests of the reader make this book open and of interest to readers of all ages.

So, people like myself -- born just three years after Woodson -- are potential readers. As are older readers who lived during that time. Just because, hey, I also remember watching The Big Blue Marble and singing along to the theme song, even if I did it from New Jersey.

The poetry may make it more accessible for some readers, but that doesn't mean it's easy or simple. Teen readers do like to read about teens -- but it's not the only thing they like to read about. Despite Woodson's age during the time of Brown Girl Dreaming, the things she lives through, her experiences, her world is bigger than her age. A parent's divorce; a move; a new sibling; a sick brother; learning about the world through books; and civil rights; all of this, all of what is in Brown Girl Dreaming, are of interest to all ages. I'd even argue that older readers -- older than ten, anyway -- will get more out of Brown Girl Dreaming because they will understand the references and the emotions in a way that younger readers cannot.

And, finally, selfishly, I don't want this to be it. I want the books that take Woodson further along her journey: Brown Teen Dreaming, Brown Woman Dreaming -- just to suggest a couple of possible titles.

Of course, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2014.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, December 15, 2014

Howdy, Teen Librarian Toolbox Readers!

This past week, I was honored to be included in Teen Librarian Toolbox's 12 Blogs of 2014!

They say some lovely things about me and my blog, starting with "Liz Burns’ blog is one that I can always count on for it’s insight, pointed opinions balanced with diplomacy, and palpable love for her subject matter."

What a lovely holiday present!

So, hello to those readers who found their way from Teen Librarian Toolbox; and Tea Cozy readers, please add Teen Librarian Toolbox to your blog reading!

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Over at SLJ: The YALSA YA Lit Symposium 2014

Over at School Library Journal, I have an article up: Five Things to Love about the YALSA YA Lit Symposium.

Can you guess the five things?

One is the opportunity to present. This year, I was on a panel -- and here's a photo of me on the panel looking oh so serious. Thanks to @meghuntwilson for the photo.

Also pictured: E.M. Kokie (Personal Effects, Candlewick, 2012); Swati Avasthi (Chasing Shadows, Knopf, 2012), Steven Brezenoff (Guy in Real Life, Balzer & Bray, 2014) and E.M. Kokie (Personal Effects, Candlewick, 2012); along with Andrew Karre, editorial director at Lerner Publishing Group. Not pictured, the moderator Blythe Woolston (Black Helicopters, Candlewick, 2013).

Anyway, go over and read the whole thing and let me know what you think!

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Peter Pan, the Original Bad Boyfriend

I love Peter Pan.

I remember watching the televised Mary Martin version as a child; the first Broadway show my grandparents took me to see was the 1979 revival of the Broadway show.

I watched those as a child and saw magic of Peter Pan as a child: the wonder, the adventure, the fear and avoidance of what growing up would mean. That Peter was played by a woman barely registered in terms of text or subtext.

Growing older, growing up, meant learning more about Peter Pan and J.M. Barrie, the man who invented him. I'm not going to get into that -- there is plenty out there about it. While the origins, inspiration, and evolution of Peter Pan are fascinating right now I'm writing more about viewer response, and one viewer in particular: me.

I love Peter Pan. Watching it as a child was magical. And I got it: Wendy and the boys went, had adventures, and when they had had enough, they went home.

I want to give a nod to three subsequent versions of Peter Pan I adored:

Hook (1991), which said that growing up doesn't mean losing touch with one's childhood. Traditionally, Peter Pan views growing up as either/or, with growing up a putting away and forgetting of "childish" things. Hook said that becoming an adult can be a good thing, but it doesn't mean a rejection and forgetting of childhood and that Peter doing so wasn't healthy. It was just as unhealthy as rejecting adulthood.

Peter Pan (2003), which gave us an age-appropriate boy, Jeremy Sumpter (born 1989) playing Peter Pan. This meant that when Pan said he was a child who hadn't grown up, the viewer saw an actual child. The other children were also played by children of the right ages for the text; Rachel Hurd-Wood was born in 1990. It captured the magic of Peter, the desire for adventure, and kept it child-centered. It's practically perfect.

As a lover of Once Upon a Time (TV series), I have to also mention their version of Peter Pan. Robbie Kay (born 1995) played Pan in 2013. Pan was played by an older teenager, and Kay clearly wasn't an adult but he also wasn't a child. This take -- spoilers -- was perhaps the darkest one yet, in which Peter Pan was not a child who refused to grow up but rather an adult who refused to remain a grown up. Once that adult was offered the chance to become a child again, he not only took it, he was willing to kill to stay a child. For this version, being a child was not about being "innocent" but was about refusing responsibility.

As an adult, how I view Peter and Wendy is more complex. The recent TV version, NBC Peter Pan LIVE, got me thinking about Peter Pan and childhood and how we view that, and I'm not sure if they intended it to be that way. Except for the roles of Michael and John, all the actors were adults. Wendy, Peter, the Lost Boys: all grown ups. Seeing adults say the lines about being a child, pretending, not growing up, just made me really think about those lines and what was, or wasn't going in the play.

As I think about it, I realize that the hero is, and always has been, Wendy -- it is Wendy who goes on the adventure to Neverland, it is Wendy who is faced with the conflict of her "let's pretend" being challenged by those around her as not good enough, it is Wendy who realizes that playing by someone else's rules gets tiring, and let's just all go home now, OK? It is Wendy who later realizes she cannot deny that same pretending to her own daughter, just because Wendy herself is older and wiser.

Because of the age of the play, much of Wendy's choices are presented in some very old-fashioned ways, and many of us watching wished mightily for a feminist retelling of Peter Pan. But as I write this up, and with the acknowledgement that the play is over 100 years old -- really, what's so wrong with wanting to play house or play school, as Wendy does? She also wants Peter's version of adventures, but what is so wrong with her manner of pretending, and why won't the boys play along with her? The problem is not in Wendy's desires, but it's in Peter's denial to recognize her dreams as being as valid as his own, and wanting to keep Wendy in a box of "mother." That's not just because the play is old -- it's because Peter is a child and that's how children think. Only their own dreams matter; other people exist only in the child's own reality. (Ask any child who is shocked to see a teacher in a store, outside of school.)

Part of the problem is that it is Wendy's adventure in Peter's world. Emily Asher-Perrin has a brilliant analysis of Peter, and how Peter himself is hardly a hero, in Peter Pan's "Greatest Pretend" is Heroism at Tor. As she explains, "Here’s the thing about Neverland—it is Peter’s playhouse. He is like the guy who owns the casino; the house always wins and he is the house. Everything in Neverland is set up so that it caters directly to his whims." Most children, myself included, would not pick up on that because the whims of children can be so similar so it's not obvious to younger viewers that this is Peter's playhouse, not any child's playhouse.

That it is Peter's playhouse, and all those his playthings, is part of the problem with Tiger Lily. Tiger Lily -- that's another area where much has been written. Two recent articles on that: at Why 'Fix' Tiger Lily? Why Not Just Let Her Go? by Dr. Adrienne Keene, posted at Indian Country; and #NotYourTigerLily: Nine Months Later and They Still Don't Get The Point by Johnnie Jae, posted at Native News.

As Asher-Perrin concludes at her article at Tor, "as Barrie states, Pan will always come back to steal our runaways and lost boys, and will continue to do so as long as children are “Innocent and heartless.” The genius of Pan’s tale, is that innocence does not automatically denote goodness. Instead, it makes a child’s lack of experience a very frightening thing after all."

These things happening to children, by children, as in the 2003 version, make sense. Peter played by a child has it make sense, even if the child has lived years and years as Peter has. As adults, we recognized that children are, well, children, and excuse or understand.

Now, suddenly, have adults say those lines? Do that pretend? Refuse to grow up?

The NBC version is no longer a brilliant and honest look at childhood and growing up; instead, it is a look at those adults who avoid growing up, even as they physically grow and mature, and it shows that this resistance to adulthood is not charming - it's creepy as hell. Holding onto childhood and avoiding responsibility or making decisions is neither innocence nor goodness. It's creepy.

And that creepiness? Is why yes, I still love Peter Pan. Because it gives one thing to the child viewer and another to the adult viewer. Because it's willing to say that children and childhood aren't perfect; and are not something to idealize. Growing up is not a bad thing; refusing to do so, fighting against it, isn't a good thing.

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Princess Shaming

In which I say why princesses aren't evil role models and cry about the Slate article about how programming parents are scared of dolls.

There is nothing wrong -- absolutely nothing wrong -- with your young child liking princesses. Any princess.

I get annoyed at the gendering of toys and books -- Legos and science are for boys, feelings and dress up are for girls -- but that is because Legos and science and feelings and dress up are for any child, boy or girl, and problematic messages are sent by calling one "boy" and one "girl."

Princesses (especially pink sparkly princesses) can be problematic not because they are pink sparkly princesses but because what it means to be a princess, to want to be a princess, and how society views that, along with misunderstandings about the nature of play and imagination (and I'd add, that goes for children, teens, and grown ups.)

I'm not the first person to talk about princesses, what they mean, what they don't mean, and the depth and substance that is needed for the "princess talk." To be honest, looking for posts and articles reveal mostly "oh no" reactions. But I want to explore more what it means when we engage in "princess shaming," and here are a few good articles to look at before I get into my own thoughts. (Also, if you know of other posts about this, please share in the comments. I thought I'd read a librarian post about play and princesses and I can't find it.)

Meg Cabot summed it up beautifully in this 2010 post about the Disney film Tangled: "I think it would be a shame for parents not to let [their daughters] have [princesses] just because they don’t believe in “the princess thing.” Because the princess thing is amazing. It’s about standing up for what you believe in, protecting the people you love, and never letting the bad guys win. It’s about rescuing yourself, and yet risking your heart when you meet someone who seems worth giving it to."

In 2013, author Emily Kate Johnston wrote In Which I Talk About Princesses (and go read the whole thing): "I’m more than a little disturbed by the current trend of trying to raise girls without princesses. . . .  it suggests that princesses have no inherent value, save as commodities in love and marriage, and that’s just the result of too-casual interpretation of their stories. Okay, okay: it’s also the result of Disney marketing, which is kind of awful a lot of the time. But in the past few years, even Disney has become much more self-aware (not always in terms of merchandise. That remains depressing. And also not a little bit racist. But in terms of the story), and shutting down their contributions to the genre isn’t fair either."

And while it's long, these posts by Zoe Chavet at the Mary Sue also deconstruct the types of princesses out there: the Princess Type, Part One and Part Two. Read the whole thing, but I'll include the conclusion: "I said at the beginning that I wanted to see characters that encourage the tenents of feminism, instead of diminishing them for the sake of Hollywood politics. Allowance for choice, and not a declaration of a singular, preferable type, is one thing that modern feminism is really about. The more (and more kinds) of female characters that we see, the healthier our own estimation of ourselves and our capabilities. There’s room for the princess, for the tomboy with a crown, and everyone else, too. Women, young and grown, are looking for themselves in the media they watch. We should give them something more to look at."

I get the immediate reaction to what we'll call the "pink princess" and the horror of marketing. And I also get not wanting to limit children's play and choices based on their gender.

That said, part of not wanting to limit includes letting the child have a choice -- even if that choice is not the one that the parent views as correct.

And when the only correct choices for girls are those that have been coded "boy," or the "tomboys", that's wrong. Feminism and equality are not about "girls are as good as boys because boys are the gold standard." It's not about saying "being a CEO is better than being a stay at home parent with six kids, because men are CEOs and power and money." It's not just about choice. It's about not saying that by default "boy" is better; "boy" is the norm; "boy" is the standard; "boy" is the default." And that is one of the messages that is sent by labeling books and toys "boy" or "girl"

A girl choosing pink princess is a valid choice. Because it is play, it is a child defining for herself what it means to be a princess. We still live in a world where the main players in films and movies and books are male, and if there is a female in a film there is only one.

So the first thing that princess culture does is it gives a girl a world where she, as a female, takes center stage. She is the main character, the lead, with the men providing supporting roles. There is no need for the child playing princess to imagine herself as Henry Potter's secret twin sister Henrietta to make herself the hero: the princess is already the hero.

And as for choosing pink -- dress up is fun, for all kids. If someone wants dresses and feathers and satin, why the heck not? Fancy dress or sweatpants, it's a child's choice. Wearing a dress doesn't stop a child from being active and doing things. It just means they are wearing a dress while doing so.

Then there is the argument that princess is all about the prince. My counter arguments to that are: today, not so much. Even then, I'd bet the play surrounding being a princess isn't so "get me a man" heavy as the narratives they play around. And if you're so against that narrative, I'd ask you a favor, Instead of speaking up against princesses, the next time someone puts their girl baby next to a boy baby and sees them playing together and exclaims, "oh, her first boyfriend!" -- speak up against THAT. Because frankly I'm more annoyed at how often an adult says this about two young children playing together, and how that sets up children to believe that relationships are to be primarily dating even when they are six months old.

Why today's rant? Well, I've been meaning to talk about how princess play isn't the end of the world for a while now. And I also urge those who are concerned to ask the actual child what it is they like about princesses, the stories, and reading about them -- you may be very surprised at how children are subverting tropes and viewing story in a way you, an adult, did not. Conversations instead of assumptions.

But the real push was a father's lament that his daughter wants princess stuff and that's just icky.

I know that people don't get to pick their headlines but here it is: The Princess Trap. Our Daughter is Getting Into Dolls and Dress Up. What Are Programmer Parents To Do?

Problem Number One: the belief (expected to be universal) that princesses, dolls, and dress up are less than programming and other good science stuff.

Problem Number Two: The subheading is "is it really too much to ask for unisex toys?" I agree with a hundred percent. Combined with the actual headline, this translates to asking for "boy toys" that aren't labelled as such. This is not so much asking for unisex toys as saying that the "girl toys" the daughter wants aren't good enough. Second class. Boy toys, that's the ticket! But with the recognition that "boy toys" is a ridiculous concept so they should be unisex. Which I agree with. But guess what? Dolls and dress up, also unisex.

Problem Number Three: "When my 4-year-old told me the other day that she was “ready for princesses,” part of me died. Not just because the day had finally arrived when that virulent meme had infected her, but also because of how utterly powerless I was to contain it. Let me be clear: These weren’t progressive princesses like Adventure Time’s Lumpy Space Princess and Doctor Princess (that’s just her last name)." Translation: there is a right way and wrong way to be female and the child is picking the wrong way. And of course, the books are all wrong because they don't have enough "exemplary, idiosyncratic female role models."

As a quick aside, I'm sure someone out there is already putting together the booklist for him to show him the error of his book shopping ways. But as I said above: there is no one right way to be a girl.

Problem Number Four: "Getting more women into science and technology fields: Where’s the silver bullet?" Because STEM is better than anything else! Confession: I fell for this bullshit in the 1980s, and instead of doing what I wanted (English! Arts!) I first went into science (computer science) and then law (like the boys, it's serious!) before I realized that choice is doing what I want, not being one of the women to break into fields because I was being told by people like this guy that such a choice was the only right choice.

No, I won't go sentence by sentence through the rest of the article.

Oh, maybe I will.

Problem Number Five: "It’s not that dress-up and dolls are inherently terrible, just that an exclusive focus on stereotypical-girl interests severely limits the scope of unstructured play, which is so important to creative development. When we visit the shop, we try to minimize our involuntary sighs, but our child notices when we get more excited about the boys’ side. Not that she’s realized it’s the boys aisle—because it’s not. It’s a kids aisle." Um. Yeah. First, I'm right there with him: it should be toys. Not girl aisles and boy aisles. But I do wonder..are those the signs? Or, with parents who are more excited about one side, is it the parents' interpretation? And how is dress up not unstructured play that adds to creative development? Note the title and subtitle are accurate: girls = girls, boys = unisex.

Problem Number Six: Legos. Go, read the whole thing. Yes, Lego and it's marketing is problematic, no arguments. But kids play with things for different reasons. When I was a kid there were just Legos, no sets, and we put them together how we wanted, not according to a box set of directions. The gender stuff Lego has done is a problem, but it's equally a problem to look at the so-called "girl Lego" and see it lesser than. Easier to put together? Not the question. The question is, does the kid want something that is easy or hard to put together? Do they want the final product or the process?

Oh god the dollhouse passage. Dollhouses. I can't even. I have to stop now because I'm thinking maybe the daughter wants pink princesses as an act of rebellion.

So, long essay short:

Princesses? Not a bad thing. Find out what it is about the princess that makes your kid want to read about her and be her; find out what your kid thinks it means to play princess.

And stop already with the explicit and implicit message that boys are unisex, girls are girls, and girls are lesser.

So, what are your thoughts? And any good articles to share?

Thanks to @BicAndMoleskin for the title of this post

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© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Monday, December 01, 2014

Giving Tuesday -- YALSA

Tomorrow is Giving Tuesday!

From the Giving Tuesday website: "On Tuesday, December 2, 2014, charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world will come together for one common purpose: to celebrate generosity and to give. It’s a simple idea. Just find a way for your family, your community, your company or your organization to come together to give something more. Then tell everyone you can about how you are giving. Join us and be a part of a global celebration of a new tradition of generosity."

YALSA is participating, for the third year in a row. From the YALSA blog: "This year will be YALSA’s third year in participating, and the Financial Advancement Committee’s (FAC) goal is to raise at least $4000 to send four...yes FOUR...YALSA members to National Library Legislative Day in Spring 2015." More details are at the YALSA blog.

And to cut to the chase, how to give? Again, from the YALSA blog: "YALSA has made it so easy this year!  Not only can you log onto the ala.org and donate the traditional way, but now you can text to donate! All you have to do is text ALA TEENALA to this number: 41518 to make a $10 donation to YALSA. It couldn’t be easier!"

If you want to find out more about donating to YALSA, the Give to YALSA website has information about how to donate, what YALSA does with the donations, etc.

Edited to add: If donating online, there are a few ways to direct your YALSA donation. I checked with YALSA about which one to select, and they said "The Friends option will go towards funding the Legislative Day stipends."

Image from Giving Tuesday website

Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy