My Top 10 Books of 2013

It’s time again for the list of books that I enjoyed most this year.  As always, only some of these books were published in 2013, but they were all a part of my 2013 experience.

interestings1. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer:

I’m a difficult-to-please reader.  I give up on books a LOT; if I get to page 50 or so and am able to put the book down without hesitation, I’m not likely to pick it up again.  When I got to page 50 or so of The Interestings, I just kept barrelling along, to the detriment of everything else I needed to do.  This is the story of a group of friends who meet at an arts camp when they’re teenagers.  I know: privileged white Americans doing privileged white American things; who cares?  Well, I do.  The words “teenagers” and “arts camp” in the reviews of this book meant that I got my hands on it the moment I could, but it was the fine and pitch-perfect evocation of their experiences from that summer onward that made me want to spend all my time with Jules and her friends through their adult misadventures.  Wolitzer writes, with the sprezzatura I aspire to, about the ins and outs of real human relationships.  (When I was done with The Interestings I downloaded Wolitzer’s novel The Wife to my e-reader and enjoyed it almost as much.)

hyperbole2. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh:

No one familiar with Allie Brosh’s blog will need any convincing to pick up this book.  The centrepiece is her stunning graphic essay on depression, but Hyperbole and a Half is also filled with stories about difficult dogs, the complications of a childhood that is in no way “universal” and yet is impossible not to relate to, and the challenges of being an adult while also being a person.  It’s visually gorgeous the way a four-year-old’s drawings would be gorgeous if that four-year-old were also a meticulously trained and scarily intelligent artist.  It’s painful and it’s incredibly funny.

buildingstories3. Building Stories by Chris Ware:

Another graphic “novel”, if a box full of pamphlets, foldouts, chapbooks, and even a “Little Golden Book” can be called a novel.  This was a Christmas gift from my husband, and as I plucked at it in the days following, I kept trying to explain how something as heartbreaking and bleak as Chris Ware’s work can also be an uplifting place to spend the holidays.  I came out the other side in tears and transformed.  If you love the tactile nature of real paper books, this will be an intense extension of that experience for you.  And the access Ware gives us into the inner lives of his struggling characters will make you feel lucky to feel so sad.

faultstars4. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green:

John Green makes a series of “Crash Course” videos on literature and other topics, and I show a couple of them in my classes: his lecture on “How and Why We Read” and his first discussion of The Catcher in the Rye.  When I showed the first video to my Adolescence and the Novel class this term, several students told me that I needed to read John Green’s novels about adolescence and put them on my courses.  It was only then that I discovered that this John Green is the same John Green who wrote The Fault in Our Stars, which had been on my “to-read” list since its publication.  I was knitting a blanket at the time of this discovery, and so didn’t have time to read anything; instead, I downloaded the audiobook and listened to it as I knit and occasionally as I went running.  It is (with the possible exception of the book at #5) the best young adult novel I’ve encountered in my adult life.  The narrator, Hazel, is living with cancer, and falls in love with a young man she meets at her cancer support group.  Lots of complications ensue, many of them centering around Hazel’s favourite book.  The genius of The Fault in Our Stars is in Hazel’s voice – she is wry, sharp and never self-pitying – and her love interest, Augustus, is as fully realized a character as she is.

abstruediary5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie:

This is another reading that grew out of my Adolescence and the Novel course.  This course includes a list of 8 novels that students can choose from, and I try to switch up some of the texts every semester.  I try to balance male and female authors, and male and female protagonists, but my greatest challenge is finding authors of different cultural backgrounds whose books I think students can read without too much teacher guidance.  Alexie’s book was such a happy discovery.  It addresses the hard realities of being a teenager on a reservation, a teenager with physical disabilities and social challenges, by creating the character of Junior: smart, hilarious, and driven to do something meaningful with his life no matter what the obstacles or the cost.  My students loved this book, and so do I.

womupstairs6. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud:

This is a very angry novel.  The anger is so perfectly rendered and so justified that it is cathartic.  If I’d been keeping this list in 2007, Messud’s earlier novel The Emperor’s Children would have been on it that year; this novel lives up to and maybe surpasses the earlier one, showing us what it’s like to take all your youthful promise and channel it into middle-aged delusion, obsession, and disappointment; at the same time the novel is built around a psychological-thriller plot that pays off nicely at the end.

wheredyougo7. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple:

This multi-format, multi-voiced novel, about an enigmatic and infuriating heroine who disappears, leaving her daughter to piece together her story from any material she can find, is hilarious and consistently surprising.  The resolution – which takes us away from the initial setting and to a locale so exotic as to strain what plausibility Semple’s bizzarro universe has – is a bit rushed and feels forced, but endings are always hard, and it’s not hard to forgive this one when the characters who bring us there are so much fun.

misspym8. Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey:

I had initially entered Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair in this spot, but as the year wound down I found that her novel Miss Pym Disposes, which I purchased and read because I loved The Franchise Affair so much, has stayed with me more firmly.  As I tried to recall the events of The Franchise Affair, it was Miss Pym who kept returning to my mind.  Is it because Miss Pym Disposes is set in a boarding school and revolves around a case of plagiarism?  Probably.  One way or another, Josephine Tey is my Mystery Writer Discovery of the year.

beautifulruins9. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter:

I am not usually a fan of the epic, the historical, the lush and dense, the swoon over foreign locales.  I don’t care for evocative descriptions of Mediterranean beaches or stories that whirl from one corner of the world and one moment in history to the far-flung next and back again.  Fictionalized stories about real people: meh.  Nevertheless, I loved Beautiful Ruins, in all its lavish, complicated narrative glory.  The thread that ties it all together is the author’s evident love of all his characters, from Richard Burton to a lovesick elderly hotel keeper to the despicable producer who is not as soulless as he would first appear.

carry-the-one-paperback-cover110. Carry the One by Carol Anshaw:

This was the first novel I read this year, and it’s stayed with me ever since.  It’s the story of three siblings and the disaster that befalls them at the beginning of the novel and haunts them until the end, twenty-five years later.  I loved this family, and I believed every moment of their suffering and their unwavering attachment to one another, as they struggle with what that attachment means when you are all so terribly, terribly flawed.

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And now I need something new to read!  Please tell me what you read and loved this year.

Fiction Makes You Better at Stuff

nprPVY0I’m planning some research on whether reading/studying fiction and other kinds of narrative is really such an important thing to do.  I was therefore immediately drawn to this article (even though it’s Saturday night and I’m desperately trying to finish grading a stack of papers): a commentary on why techie geeks should read fiction.

Is it true?  Does reading fiction make us more creative?  Can it be “a funhouse mirror, a fantastic reflection that changes your perspective on something you see, but don’t necessarily see, every day”?  If so, is reading fiction better at doing that than other kinds of reading, watching, listening, doing?

I occasionally have a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting student or meet a brilliant, creative, articulate, interesting person who writes well and analyzes admirably but claims to never/rarely read fiction.  I want to spend time following these people around to discover how they became so evolved while investing little time in a pursuit we readers often hold in higher intellectual/educational esteem than any other.

Does reading fiction really matter that much?  I can’t make up my mind.

Image by Dahlia

This Book is Too Sad

o3XIW26A reader and colleague sent me this question the other day.  What would you do in her position?

Dear Siobhan,

A few of my college students (note, not the class as a whole) have told me they’re having a really hard time with the book we’re studying in class because it’s too sad. It’s The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill. The principal person in this small group suggested that at her age, she’s too sensitive to read a book like this. She’s studied slavery before, but finds this book– which follows a slave woman’s life– too graphic, too emotionally difficult. How would you handle this?

H.

I’m not sure.   Dear readers, what do you think?  Should college students be obligated to read texts that challenge them emotionally in ways they might not be prepared for?  Please leave your thoughts below.

Image by Sanja Gjenero

How Sexy is Too Sexy?

mllLe8AHow much explicit sex is acceptable in a book required for a college class?  If students have some say in whether they read the book, does that make a difference?

One of my courses includes a list of eight novels about adolescence.  Four or five students will read each novel and will work together to present it to the class.  I speak to them briefly about each book at the beginning of the semester.  They browse the books (I provide them with front and back covers and first chapters), and give me a list of their top three choices; I do my best to accommodate their preferences.

Each year, when ordering books for the coming semester, I look at the list from last time and adapt it, based on how the novels from the previous year went over.  This year, I’m jettisoning three novels from last time and replacing them with new ones.

As I carry out this process, I have a foolish habit.  In the scramble to put together a list of eight books (or, in a recent scenario, forty-five books) on a particular subject or of a particular genre, I sometimes throw in something that I haven’t actually read.  And for “sometimes,” read “often.”  Every time, I regret this decision.  And the next time, I do it again.  This semester I HAD to get my book orders in at a moment when I had NO TIME to do any extra reading.  And so I decided to once again throw caution to the winds, and ordered Scott Spencer’s Endless Love for my course on novels about adolescence.

I’d been meaning for years to read Endless Love, based on recommendations from a number of book critics I respect.  I’d even downloaded and read an excerpt on my e-reader, and was blown away by it, and had been intending to buy and read the whole thing ever since.  I hadn’t gotten around to it, but I figured that my impulse to keep reading, and the general critical acclaim the book has received, and its focus on adolescent love, made it suitable.  So I placed my order, and got myself a copy, and started reading.

Thirty-five pages in, I was greeted with a graphic, dripping, pulsating depiction of teenage, heterosexual anal sex.

The scene is not gratuitous.  It’s fundamental to the fabric of the novel.  It is beautifully, if shockingly (at least to me) rendered.  It is absolutely appropriate to the book.

The questions is, is it appropriate for a college classroom?

Some of my students will be under eighteen; some will be deeply and narrowly religious; some will be really immature.  Others will be able to handle explicit sex scenes and appreciate them for what they are: an integral part of the story.  When I briefly present the book to the class and mention that some of them may wish to avoid it if they’re uncomfortable with graphic sex, many of them will be titillated and will choose the book for that reason.  (This is what happens with Alice Sebold’s Lucky in my memoir course, when I tell them they should avoid it if they are worried about the opening rape scene; the vast majority of students choose it as one of their readings.)  Others will be absent that day, will be assigned the book or choose it themselves, and will be outraged.

Is it worth the hassle?  I’m three-quarters of the way through now; for the last 250 pages, there has been no sex, although I can see some on its way.  (Yes, another concern is that this novel is LONG.)  It’s a really good book, and some of them are going to love it.  If I want to pull it from the course, I need to let the bookstore know, like, now.

What’s a teacher to do?  Trust that they will choose wisely and handle the consequences?  Take the chance that there will be fallout?  Find another book?  What would you do?

Image by matchstick

Why You Should Fall in Love with Abed Nadir or Some Other Imaginary Person

I want my students to believe that it’s good to fall in love with fictional people.  But I may be wrong.

My English course for Child Studies majors is called “A Question of Character.”  We’ve spent the last few weeks discussing  what “characterization” means in literature, and what “character” means in life.  Along the way, we’ve talked a little about whether reading literature can influence our personal characters and, as a result, our success and happiness in the present and future.  This is a question I want to explore more deeply in the coming weeks.

Our foray into this topic has corresponded, accidentally, with my sudden, random, out-of-control obsession with the TV show Community.  This obsession is inconvenient because it means that I can’t grade papers, can’t read the 45 books I need to read for this class, can’t really leave the house or do my laundry.  I can’t do anything but watch CommunityI devoured all 74 episodes in 2 weeks, and when they were over, I was so grief-stricken over the loss that I went back to the beginning and started again.  My husband is getting a little worried.

That said, my obsession with the show IS convenient because, although it is a multifaceted obsession, it is also focused.  I love the writing, I love the bizarro universe, I love the many layers of meta-meaning.  Mostly, though, I love Abed Nadir.  And I think my love for Abed is an appropriate discussion topic in a course that deals with character.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, Community has followed a band of 7 oddball students and their equally oddball teachers through their first 3 years of community college. (The 4th season has just begun, and I’m disappointed with it so far – a lot of changes have happened behind the scenes – but I still have high hopes.)  Abed is, at least on the surface, the oddest of them all.  In the pilot, another student, irritated with Abed, barks that he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and he does seem to be a textbook case.  His consuming passion is pop culture, and he makes terrible movies that reveal some of his buried emotional truths.  He’s rigid and aloof, yet remarkably sensitive; a genius, yet utterly naive.  He repeats the phrase “Cool.  Cool cool cool” like a distracted owl, and he does a lot of blank, fish-eyed staring and subtle head-cocking.  He’s able to connect with the people around him only by imagining that they’re all in a film or television show – when his friends pressure him to flirt, he channels Mad Men’s Don Draper; when he dresses up as Batman for Hallowe’en, he turns into an actual superhero.

Abed isn’t really capable of loving anyone, but the closest he gets is his relationship with his best friend Troy, former high school quarterback and prom king.  Troy, for his part, loves Abed to distraction.  When a girl Troy’s interested in says Abed is weird, Troy walks out on her.  (Abed: ” I AM weird.”)  When he thinks Abed might be stolen away to England by a pen pal, Troy’s jealousy leads him to go “all psycho girlfriend,” as Troy’s actual girlfriend gently describes it.

It’s not just Troy, though; everyone around Abed loves him, even though they don’t understand him.  His friends listen to his advice because they know he has absolutely no emotional investment in their problems.  They step in front of bullies who want to pick on him; they pay for film courses that his father won’t cover, because they want him to follow his dreams.  From the moment he appears in the first minute of the pilot, telling the leading man his life story and THEN his name, he gives Community its wonky center.  And the fans love Abed with a love so demanding that some critics think it will warp the show’s orbit entirely.  (The Facebook page of the actor who plays him, Danny Pudi, has over 15,000 fans, and I would wager that at least 14,000 of them know Pudi ONLY as Abed.  That’s a LOT of love for a character who can barely make eye contact and has shrieking meltdowns when clocks are reset for Daylight Savings.)

It’s Abed who keeps me glued to Netflix for 6-hour blocks.  I want to spend all my time with him.  In the beginning, I had only a vague, inarticulate understanding of why this was, and a feeling that it would make a good basis for a lesson.  Also, great news: if I teach a lesson about Community, and Abed, I get to spend more time watching Community, and Abed.

My initial, intuitive analysis went something like this:

  • I love Abed because I’m just like him: socially awkward, unintentionally aloof, isolated inside my own mind and often unable to connect with others. (I always score in the borderline-to-Asperger’s range on autism self-tests.)
  • I love Abed because he’s so, so much better than me.  He’s adorable.  He’s charming and funny.  He’s completely self-assured – he fears losing his friends but has no fear of losing himself.  (And he doesn’t lose his friends.  This is also important.)
  • Abed therefore represents an ideal, but one I can actually aspire to.  He’s not realistic, but he feels real; I recognize so much of myself in him that it seems possible I could, someday, be as wonderful as he is.  Maybe loving him will improve me.

What does this have to do with my class?

I decided to find out by doing some research, and came across an article in the journal Children’s Literature in Education called “Why Readers Read What Writers Write,” by Hugh Crago. Crago presents us with the term “emotional matching,” which he defines as the way “a work of fiction has matched or paralleled the reader’s ‘self-narrative,’ that is, the shadowy concept most of us have about who we are, why we act the way we do, and the sort of ‘history’ we have had in the past and expect to have in the future.” (280)

Crago gives us a couple of examples to illustrate how “identification” works as powerfully with a fictional character as it does with a real human being.  For children, especially – and my course is a Child Studies course – an imaginary person can be an (unrequited but never rejecting) friend and role model, someone to connect to and also to admire, to seek comfort from and to imitate.  When we love Anne Shirley or Harry Potter, Tarzan or Nancy Drew, we feel, “I want to be like that, and I COULD be like that, because that person may be awesome, but he/she is also like me.”

Is it really this straightforward?  It feels so magical and chemical, so deeply personal despite its universality, this infatuation with a person who doesn’t exist.  Could it really come down to a simple Lego model of the soul – if your piece fits onto my piece, I get bigger?

Come to think of it, that IS kind of magic.  Maybe it’s why kids love Lego, too.

Or maybe it’s even simpler than that.  Maybe we love these characters because, by watching them or reading about them, we can feel what it would be like to be as amazing as they are, without doing any of the work required to actually be so.  This is a less encouraging scenario, and certainly undermines the pedagogical validity of my lesson.  Are Harry Potter and Anne Shirley and Abed merely ways for us to escape our real selves, to put on, in our own minds, costumes that make us appear to ourselves to be more than we are?

Mark David Chapman and Holden Caulfield immediately spring to mind.

I have written about the benefits of obsession before, but am I making excuses for something that is usually a waste of time and sometimes dangerous?  The greatest achievements in art and other creative pursuits are often the fruit of a creator’s obsession – or perhaps “grit” or “focus” would be a nicer word – but can passive, compulsive consumption of a sitcom or a novel ever lead to real personal growth?  Or can it only offer us, at best, comfort?

Maybe it doesn’t matter.  As any lonely, bullied, awkward or frightened child will tell you: such comfort is nothing to sneeze at.  This moving post, by an autistic woman who saw, in Abed, the first authentic reflection of herself on television, would convince anyone that simply recognizing oneself in the other is one of the most life-changing experiences we can have.

My plan is to start my lessson by asking my students to think of a book, a film, or a TV show that they have, at some point in their lives, loved to the point of obsession.  I’ll then get them to watch an episode of Community, to name the character that they each like best, and to discuss why.  I’ll ask them to guess which character I like best, and that will give me an excuse to talk about Abed for a while.  And then we’ll look at Crago’s article, and discuss the uses of “identification,” of “emotional matching.”  What do kids, and the rest of us, learn from falling in love with people who aren’t real?  Can we learn to be better versions of ourselves?  Or can we mostly just take refuge?

And if it’s only refuge, isn’t it still worth an awful lot?

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Some related and worthwhile links:

Community is TV’s Most Ambitious Show

The Curious Case of Abed Nadir: Community and “Pop-Orientalism”

Episode Recap: “Virtual Systems Analysis”: The Fears of Abed the Undiagnosable

Crushes, Breakups and Natural Lives: How the Critical Romantic Watches Television

Corporatizing Education: A Justification

speckled paperSo let me just put this out there.

Yesterday I attended a talk by the renowned/infamous literary theorist Stanley Fish.  Fish’s talk was entitled “What are the Humanities Worth?”  He began exploring this question by referencing Louis Menand’s article “Live and Learn: Why We Have College.”

Menand  poses a similar question, often asked by students: “Why do I have to read this?”  Menand’s initial response is “Because this is the sort of book students in college read.” Menand feels this response is inadequate, but according to Stanley Fish, this is exactly what we should be telling students: “Just because.”  What are the humanities worth?  Don’t ask that question, Stanley Fish replies.  (But you just did, Mr. Fish!!)

The auditorium was packed with students, and as I looked around, it was clear that many of them a) had no idea what he was talking about, or b) were unconvinced by his assertion that the poem “The Fore-runners” by George Herbert is  its own justification and that we shouldn’t need to say anything more about the issue.

My main problem with his (entertaining and erudite) talk was this: he started by referencing Menand, who wants to determine why we should REQUIRE STUDENTS to study certain things.  He ended by explaining why the study of the humanities should continue to exist and why colleges and universities should continue to fund those studies.  (Sort of: his talk was also a sort of rail against the whole enterprise of “justification,” a position I also take issue with: more on this in a moment.)  These are not the same question.  Sure, the study of, say, literature, has all sorts of value that can’t be quantified, but Menand isn’t asking about that.  He’s asking a question that I often ask.  Why should every single student who enters a given institution, regardless of his/her personal goals, be required to study literary analysis, philosophy, etc.?

Fish’s premise in his talk was that “justification” entails explaining the monetary benefit of something, and he scorned the attitude that the purpose of an education is to qualify oneself for a good job.  This is all very well for Mr. Stanley Fish, who outlined his own career trajectory nicely during the Q&A: he finished his doctorate in the ’60s, was immediately hired as an academic, and has been in a comfortable tenured job ever since, in addition to having the passion and skills required to be a world-famous cultural critic.  For my average student, who has limited literacy, whose parents may well be scrabbling to make a living after their recent arrival from another country, and who doesn’t particularly like school but knows that he/she has no hope in hell of earning a decent wage without at least a college degree, the problem with viewing an education as part of a career path may be less obvious.

I’m not sure such a student needs to be investing him/herself in the study of George Herbert.  I’m not sure that a CEGEP education, as it is currently organized, is serving that student as well as it could.  I agree that many students benefit from spending time with poetry, or the living conditions in medieval France, or the works of Aristotle.  For some students, though, these studies are frustrating and impenetrable, and the upshot is that they leave these courses having learned little, and feeling relieved that they jumped through one more hoop on their way to the life and career they want.

I have an odd little educational fantasy that might not be fantasy at all – I’m surprised that it is not a more active reality.

What would happen if established corporations, industries etc. set up their own “universities”?

For example: say you graduate from high school and you are currently inclined to work as a telephone technician.  To do so, you need to apply to “colleges” established by major telephone companies like Bell Canada. These colleges do not just involve technical training; they are created by teams of highly trained educational consultants, as well as corporate managers, who determine together what kind of community they want the company to be, what qualities employees should possess, and what kinds of study would encourage these qualities. Literature and philosophy courses, therefore, would have a focus that might seem clearly relevant to students, even if they would also expose students to larger ideas, like the broccoli your mom pureed into your delicious buttery mashed potatoes.

Credits from these colleges would be transferable and recognized by other companies.  Let’s say you apply to study with every telephone company in the country and are accepted by all of them; you choose to study with Bell, but when you graduate, no jobs with Bell are available.  Not just your education but your application history would be valuable information on your CV, and hiring practices would need to account for an applicant’s entire experience.  If you complete some of your studies but decide that working with telephones is not for you, your application to study with a local plumbing company would need to include a personal reflection on what you’ve learned so far and why it makes you a good candidate to study and apprentice with them.

What are the problems with such a system?  What are the benefits?  When I look around at many of my students who are struggling to make ends meet, to fit in all their required courses, and to find the relevance in a lot of their class material, I ask myself what might provide them with greater motivation and therefore greater learning.  Telling them, a la Stanley Fish, that they shouldn’t be looking for relevance, that they’re asking the wrong questions, is not going to cut it with most of them.  Would it help if the goal was clear, and if it was really and truly the student’s own personal goal?

Image by Billy Frank Alexander

My Top 10 Books of 2012

It’s time again for the list of books that I enjoyed most this year.  As always, only some of these books were published in 2012, but they were all a part of my 2012 experience.

gone-girl-book-cover-med1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Each of my  top 5 could easily have been #1.  In the end, I put Gone Girl in the top spot because on almost every page I muttered to myself, “How is she DOING this?”

I want to be a mystery novel lover, because the genre is so huge and so there are so many pleasures to be had, but I often get halfway through a mystery and admit to myself that I simply don’t care who did it or why  (P. D. James is someone who often disappoints me this way).  Other times I don’t even get that far, because I am so distracted by the poor writing.  There are a few writers who never let me down. Kate Atkinson is one; Tana French (see below) is another; and now, I have Gillian Flynn, and I am so, so grateful.

personbe2. How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

This was a Christmas gift from my husband, and I read it in less than 24 hours.  Heti reminds me of Lydia Davis, but without Davis’s chilly control.  Don’t get me wrong – chilly control is what I’m all about – but How Should a Person Be is exhilarating, befuddling, and inspiring.  Imagine if Lena Dunham made a film that was only interior monologue – it would be a bit like this novel.  Self-absorbed and miniature in detail, yet huge in scope.  Full of laugh-out-loud gorgeous turns of phrase.  I’ve known of Heti for a while but have never felt inclined toward her work – I’ll go back and investigate her earlier books now.

BROKEN HARBOUR_UK3. Broken Harbour by Tana French

See comments on Gone Girl, above.  Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series is a collection of those rare finds: murder mysteries that are re-readable.  Not only did I list her novel The Likeness as one of my Top 10 Books of 2010, but it may be one of my favourite books of all time.  Broken Harbour may be just as good.  The intersection of intricate plotting with beautiful writing is almost unparallelled.  Also: set in Ireland, which can’t hurt.

areyoumymother4. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

This book should probably be #1, but my top picks are all so good that ranking them is stymieing me.  I love graphic novels.  Bechdel’s Fun Home, in which she grapples with the legacy of her complicated father, is also one of my favourite books of all time.  In this sequel of sorts, she turns her analytical eye on her equally difficult relationship with her mother.  One difference: her mother is still alive, and an active participant in the writing and narration of the story.  Fascinating, unrelenting, and funny, and Bechdel’s artwork never fails to slay me.

book-children-succeed5. How Children Succeed by Paul Tough

I have written several posts on Tough’s work, including a review of this book and a meditation on an excerpt that was published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.  He is a deep thinker on educational issues, yet he writes fluidly and accessibly and has a warm and gentle sense of humour.  This is not just a work of social science; it’s an entertaining and enlightening read.

marbles6. Marbles by Ellen Forney

Another graphic novel.  Forney’s chronicle of her battle with bipolar disorder is hilarious, touching, instructive and hopeful.  Her honest recounting of her own experience is interwoven with historical and medical info.  The central question – “Do I have to be crazy to be a great artist?” – is not answered, but the exploration is illuminating.

Phantomtollbooth7. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

One of my projects this year was to prepare a list of 42 children’s books for reading in my Child Studies course.  When I asked for recommendations, The Phantom Tollbooth came up over and over.  I’d never read it. Now I have.  It is great, and the final line is now one of my all-time favourite quotations.

basilef8. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

Compiling the above-mentioned children’s book list has involved re-reading lots of old childhood favourites.  I’d forgotten how fantastic this novel is.  I must have read it 10 or 12 times as a child, and reading it again now was perhaps my most delightful reading experience of the year, not just for the book itself but for the immediacy with which it transported me back to being a child reader, the wonder of which is difficult to retrieve in adulthood.

(Note: the finished list of books for the Child Studies course can be found here, if you’re interested.)

filmclub9. The Film Club by David Gilmour

This was also a re-read; it was one of the memoirs I taught in my Personal Narrative course this fall.  I thought my students might like it – a story about a father who lets his teenage son drop out of school if he agrees that they watch and discuss three films a week, chosen by the father – but I was surprised by how much they enjoyed it, and how much I enjoyed it the second time around.

quiet10. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

Is this a cheat?  I didn’t actually read this book – I listened to it as an audiobook, and then bought the book so that I could read it, and haven’t gotten around to it yet.  People keep telling me that listening to a book counts, and I loved this book, so it makes the list.  If you often wonder if there’s something wrong with you because you don’t love going to parties, you’d rather write an email than talk on the phone, and you feel anxious if you don’t get some alone time every day, then this book is for you.  It helped me embrace my introverted weirdness and recognize its strengths.

Please tell me your favourite book(s) of the year!  And happy reading in 2013.

Children’s Book List: Finalized

mCTJspoDear Readers:

Many of you asked to see my finalized list of classic children’s books for next term’s Child Studies course.  Here it is.  As it stands for now, anyway.

My criteria:

  • I included only books I have read, or that I really should have read by now, or that I have some interest in reading.
  • I want each student to become an “expert” on the book he/she chooses.  Most of these books have stood the test of quite some time, so that the student can research the life of the author, book reviews, scholarly responses, the historical context, etc.
  • I chose books suitable for children of 8-12 years old; they are mostly on the older end of this spectrum.
  • Each student is expected to do a 10-minute presentation on one book.  However, if two students want to present books by the same author, they may do a 20-minute presentation together.  The either/or options at the end of this are for this purpose.  So, for example, a student can decide to present alone on Charlotte’s Web; if another student wants to present on The Trumpet of the Swan, and the first student agrees, they can present together.

I have not included authors’ names here because I have been at the computer all day and can’t be bothered, but most of you will know who wrote most of these anyway.

I am conscious that this is a super WASPy list, and may try to make some adjustments to remedy this.

In addition to two books from this list, students will be required to read Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed and the first Harry Potter book.

This week, I reread The Railway Children and most of Five Children and It (both terrific, but The Railway Children wins.)  I also spent a delightful half hour in my local second-hand bookshop, talking to the owner – a Francophone who has discovered a lot of English children’s books as an adult – about Harriet the Spy.

  1. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  2. The Phantom Tollbooth
  3. A Wrinkle in Time
  4. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  5. Harriet the Spy
  6. From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
  7. The Hobbit
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird
  9. Treasure Island
  10. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  11. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
  12. Little House on the Prairie
  13. Island of the Blue Dolphins
  14. The Wind in the Willows
  15. Pippi Longstocking
  16. The Borrowers
  17. The Indian in the Cupboard
  18. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
  19. Hatchet
  20. Holes
  21. Tuck Everlasting
  22. The Giver
  23. The Dark is Rising
  24. Heidi
  25. Swallows and Amazons
  26. Mine for Keeps
  27. The Secret World of Og
  28. Owls in the Family
  29. The Call of the Wild
  30. The Great Brain
  31. Where the Red Fern Grows
  32. The Cricket in Times Square
  33. The Incredible Journey
  34. What Katy Did
  35. Little Women
  36. Charlotte’s Web OR The Trumpet of the Swan
  37. The Secret Garden OR A Little Princess
  38. Then Again, Maybe I Won’t OR Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
  39. James and the Giant Peach OR Danny the Champion of the World
  40. The Railway Children OR Five Children and It
  41. Anne of Green Gables OR Emily of New Moon

I will be delighted to hear more suggestions, to receive your approvals and disapprovals, and to answer questions.  I’m sure there are plenty of opinions about what I’ve left off here; let me have it (there’s always next year’s list…).

Image by Lynne Lancaster

Children’s Literature Reading List Update

In the last two days, I have read/reread:

  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler
  • Then Again, Maybe I Won’t
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events Book 1: A Bad Beginning
  • The Phantom Tollbooth

I have also spent several lovely hours wandering through the stacks of three different children’s libraries.  The nostalgia is permeating everything.  I’d forgotten what it’s like to haul home a stack of 15 new delicious-looking books and devour 2 or more of them before the day is over.

I have spent most of my adult life searching for that blinkered bliss that accompanies childhood reading.  I almost never find it.  If this continues, I’m in for a really  good winter vacation.

This is my JOB.  Are you kidding me?

Thank you all so much for your book suggestions! I will post a full 45-book reading list for my Child Studies course for your enjoyment once it is finalized.

“Well, I would like to make another trip…but I really don’t know when I’ll have the time.  There’s just so much to do right here.”

-The Phantom Tollbooth

Image by Jules Feiffer

42 Books for Kids

I am putting together a list of 42 excellent children’s books (one for each student) for my Child Studies course next semester.

I am looking for books suitable for children between the ages of 8 and 12 – “chapter books” rather than picture books.  I’d also like them to be less contemporary books, books that my students are not likely to have encountered on their own – so no Harry Potter or Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

I’m particularly interested in books that will appeal to boys.  Most books that spontaneously come to my mind are ones that I enjoyed, and my interests were not boyish.  (Don’t get all up in my grill about gender stereotypes, please; anyone who teaches teenagers knows that these things matter.)

Here’s my list so far:

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (possible candidate for the whole-class reading)
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
  • Bridge to Terebithia
  • Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing
  • Harriet the Spy
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
  • Swallows and Amazons
  • The Railway Children
  • The Secret Garden

Do you have suggestions for great kids’ books, especially books that my (mostly non-reading) students are unlikely to have encountered by themselves or through elementary-school reading assignments?  What books did/do you feel kids really must read?

Image by brainloc

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