Teen Librarian Toolbox
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Middle Grade Monday – Read Across America

Each year, my trusty library club participants and I travel to one of our district’s elementary schools to participate in Read Across America by reading Dr. Seuss books in classrooms. This year’s trip had to be rescheduled due to an early closing for snow, but we finally went last Thursday. It’s a fun but exhausting trip. The students are grouped in twos and threes and have a schedule of classrooms to visit. To prepare, we spend about 15 minutes of each library club meeting reading Dr. Seuss books with partners to get used to the language and cadence of the words.

The students get their marching orders from Mrs. Shore – AKA The Cat in the Hat.

Lunch is served! I wish I could show you pictures from the classrooms – the little kids are so cute. I don’t have the correct permissions for that, though.

Next up for our Library Club is our end of year celebration for this year’s Book for All ReadersLegend by Marie Lu. Have any of you read it?

Movie Review: Divergent

One of the book-based movies that I’ve been looking forward to this year, That Guy and I met up with some of my former workers and a bunch of my teen volunteers to see Divergent opening weekend. Our group was a very mixed bunch- some of us (myself included) had read the entire trilogy, while others had read only one, and still others hadn’t read any of them at all but still were anxious to see the movie. 


After letting go of all my expectations of the movie matching the book (something that I have learned for all book based movies), I was entranced with it. To me, the movie is Tris’ transformation from who her parents want her to be to who she is actually is inside.

There are a ton of reviews of the movie already, but I think that these three really say things extremely well:


1. I adore Shailene.

I’m sorry, all the press that is comparing her to Jennifer Lawrence can suck eggs, because they are both awesome. In fact, there’s this:

 She’s perfect as the searching Tris, and grows into the character well. I can’t wait to see where she goes from here.

2. “Supporting” Casting

The supporting cast rocked, and I really wish they had more of a role. I can’t believe that with Maggie Q and the rest of the cast they only had small bits and pieces.

3. Fearscapes

I really got what they did with the fearscapes and the testings, and was worried how that was going to play out. I could completely see it going weird, hokey, and all bad CGI and everything, and it didn’t- the scenes were real and drew you in, and played on the emotions (in good and bad ways) so that the audience felt what the characters were feeling as well.

4. Costuming

I loved the costumes and the attention to detail- that the Erudite were meticulous and sharp edges while Abnegtion was greys and homespun. Dauntless was black and hard materials, while Candor was white and black and crisp and sparse. I wanted clothes from the various factions, which is saying something because if you know anything about me, I am NOT a clothes person. My fashion choices run to sarcastic t-shirts.

5. Fighting

The attention to the fight scenes were extremely choreographed and thought out, and were well-played, especially making you believe in the real fights. You could tell (as did some of my teens who are actually taking martial arts) what type of fighting styles the training came from, what type of moves they were going to make, and the fights actually MADE SENSE most of the time. Note- if you were in my theater, I do apologize, because we were the group yelling about how you should always pull up your hair in a fight.


1. The lack of diversity among the factions

I noticed it, That Guy noticed it, and my teens definitely noticed it when we talked about it afterwards- they were joking around that they had to be Dauntless because no other faction would take them based on their skin tone. There impression, and mine, and That Guy’s, is that all the other factions were white- everyone who was a POC was Dauntless- including the final scenes in the simulation room, the bodyguards I peg as Dauntless, not Erudite.

I’d have to go back and watch the movie for sure, but it made a huge impression that the only faction that even remotely had POC was Dauntless. It was huge for my teens, and if they picked up on it and joked on it, how does it effect others? I know a huge debate has been ongoing about the casting of Theo James, and I still come down against it because this would have been a huge chance to have a main character be a POC and show teens they have a place.

2.  Will/Peter/Al

The casting of Peter and Will were too similar to my whole group. It was hard for the non-readers to tell them apart, and everyone was extremely confused as to why Peter and Al had it in for Tris in the first place. They weren’t sure whether they were Divergent-born or not, and it just confused everything. In the book it’s extremely clear (and completely relates to themes that were dropped from the movie) yet it’s murky enough to confuse non-fan movie goers.

3. Lack of Explanation

The movie fast-forwards up to the Choosing Ceremony and right into the politics of Tris’ choosing without really explaining WHY there’s huge politics behind it. Yes, Abnegtion is under scrutiny, and yes, Marcus has issues, but why is that taking down the whole faction? (Notice you never heard about his wife, who deserted him and Tobias- and she’s huge in the next two books). Why is Erudite trying to take over? Why not Candor? Why now? Why are people looking to Tris and her brother as political fortune tellers? It’s murky, and not well explained.

4. Merging of the Transfers and the Divergent-Born

There’s this gigantic thing about how being Divergent-Born gives the initiates an advantage over the Transfers, and that’s why the Transfers (Tris, Christina, Will, and others) have to trained separately for the first stage of Initiation. It’s mentioned in the movie when the Transfers are handed over to Four. It’s a major plot point in the book, and fuels a number of sub-plots in both the book and movie (including people learning whether or not she’s Divergent, Peter’s jealous, and the attack on Tris). Yet, after that first mention, it’s a non-issue in the rest of the movie. Never mentioned again. Poof.

5.  Mom

Yes, I get that when you get a big name actress they need more screen time, yes, meeting up with her mom clandestinely means more tension, and yes, I get to hammer home the point that it’s Faction before Blood they cut the Family Reunion time after the first stage of Initiation. However, during the Family Visiting Day in the book is when Tris learns that her mom was Dauntless, not when she was shot. And when she was SHOT is when she learns that she was DIVERGENT. IMPORTANT POINTS TO BUILD PEOPLE.

So, did you see it? What did you think? Agree? Disagree? Share in the comments below!

Sunday Reflections: Live In This Moment

Everything you hear about seems to be able planning ahead. Focus on the future.

In work: plan ahead for the next summer reading after the current one just finished. Plan the next three months of programs as you just finished the current ones. Plan ahead for the next big program, the next big thing.

In life: plan ahead for your child’s education savings. Plan ahead for your retirement. Plan ahead for your funeral. Plan ahead, ahead, ahead.

Take care of your student loans and credit cards first, and save for retirement. Yet fridges blow up, ovens stop working, pipes freeze, the air conditioning goes out, and all the ‘extra’ money in your budget goes away, and there’s nothing but the basics left. If you’re lucky.

So you go without. No vacations, no eating out, no movies, just barebones. Save it back up, build it back up. It’s OK to wait to see family. It’s OK to wait to go on a vacation, to spend time outside of the house and work with those you love and those you care about. There will be time. . . .

I used to think that way. We bought an older house rather than buy or build new when we finally bought a house and moved from our nomadic apartment life. No problem, we thought. We can update as we need, put off vacations and save to replace things. And we did for a while. We bought a new fridge because the house didn’t come with one. We replaced the hood over the stove, and replaced the lights. We replaced the cooktop, and then the dishwasher. We painted some rooms, and waited on others.

We worked, and I put in over 80 hour weeks, and took a job that paid less than the job I had, because it was a great opportunity but had a sucky work schedule, because it was ideal for me. That Guy and I could meet for dinners, and weekend lunches, and we could just save up more somehow.

And we pushed off the dream vacations of London and Europe because there would be time.

And we pushed off visiting relatives in other parts of the country because there would be time.

And we pushed off visiting other parts of the country that weren’t connected to conferences because there were would be time.

Then life decided to intervene.

We (That Guy and I) lost a number of family members between us in the space of 18 months.

That Guy got diagnosed with a chronic illness that affects the way we live, the way we eat, and the way we travel. We lost contact with friends and family for a while as we adjusted to what he needed, and how he needed to live. We’re slowly getting back to knowing what our limits are, and learning to say NO adamantly when something will exceed those limits.

We lost my dad, my grandmother, and my uncle in the space of six months.

I’ve been diagnosed with some health things that I need to focus on.

And you know, the things that seem “important” to everyone else really don’t seem that way to us anymore.

It’s not important that I completely pay off my student loans within a year or so. They’ll get paid off eventually, and yes, they could get paid off faster if I focused all of my extra money on it. Instead, that extra money is going to pay for our tickets for a family cruise in October. It’s more important to me to have that family time with That Guy and my relatives.

Does that mean I’m going to go insane and run up credit cards and huge debt? No. Does that mean that instead of buying groceries I’m going to go to Disney? No.

But it means that I’m taking a different view of my life, and thinking: which is more important?

Is it more important to me to save to replace the stove that still works but has kinks or to save for a family cruise?

Is it more important to me right now to dust or to spend this hour holding That Guy while he sleeps?

Is it more important to me right now to finish off the book review that Karen’s been needing or read to the niece?

It’s a shift in viewpoint, and while it’s a subtle shift, it’s there.

I’m going to conferences, but I’m not going to every single session and running to every single thing. I’m taking my time and not wearing myself out. And if That Guy is with me, we’re going to pick something that WE want to do as well, like Crunch! An Evening with the Authors at the Texas Library Assocation conference in April- a night of probably weird food that he can’t eat, but listing to zombie authors like Jonathan Maberry talk about books. And in Las Vegas, we have a standing date with Tim Federle to go see a Cirque de Soleil show- his pick.

I still kick butt and do awesome things at work. I do cool programs, and have tweens begging to do homework so they can make rainbow loom bracelets on Thursdays. But I’m actively taking steps to change my schedule, because while working 3 nights a week was fun and exciting when I started, now That Guy’s schedule and mine aren’t compatible with his illness.

I need to start making things work for me. I don’t want to have any regrets, that I didn’t do this because I was saving for a new oven. That I didn’t do that because the extra $20 a paycheck went to retirement instead of seeing someone at Christmas.

That instead of taking the time to cuddle That Guy or color with a niece, I researched a project for work on my day off.

I don’t want to have any regrets. And I won’t, because I’m going to live in this moment.

Friday Finds – March 28, 2014

This Week at TLT

Heather explores The Myth of Not Enough

Book Reviews
Middle Grade Monday – Ninja Librarian!
ARCS to Movie DOUBLE GIVEAWAY!!! – Enter to win ARCs of Noggin and Grasshopper Jungle
Canary, Sexual Violence and a Culture of Athlete Adoration (a guest post by author Rachele Alpine)
THAT Scene in Divergent (spoiler alert!)
The #SVYALit Project Virtual Chat/Google Hangout #2

The #SVYALit Virtual Panel #2 Recap
The School for Good and Evil: A World without Princes Booktrailer

How we Talk about Teenaged Characters in Books is Completely Wrong, a look at adolescent development

Previously at TLT
Highlights from the first #SVYALit Hangout 
Around the Web

A look at how we measure poverty in the United States.

John Green’s Paper Towns is going to be a movie

Our very own Heather is taking part in a really exciting program – check her out!

A first look at the cover and an excerpt from the upcoming middle grade series from Cassandra Clare and Holly Black.

Libraries as community problem solvers. 

*Tap, tap* Is this thing on? Does anyone read to the end of these Friday Finds segments? If you do, leave a comment, any comment, on this post and I will enter your name in a drawing for a copy of Rachel Hawkins’ excellent upcoming YA, Rebel Belle. Winner announced next week during Friday Finds – shhhh! – it’s a secret experiment.

How we Talk about Teenaged Characters in Books is Completely Wrong, a look at adolescent development

Check out the Oct 2011 edition for more

Occasionally I will read a review of a book and they will say things like they hated the book because the main character, a teenager, “made stupid decisions”, was “stupid”, was “whiny”, was “selfish”, or was “impulsive”.  When I read these reviews I can’t help but think, do you remember being a teen? And have you talked to one lately?

I believe what these reviewers mean to say is that the teenaged characters in a book about teenagers acted like teenagers do and that is okay because this is a book about teenagers.

Here’s the deal, teenagers are very different from adults. Research, actual science, has shown that their brains aren’t fully developed and they don’t even access them the same way that adults do. In fact, the part that influences decision making is one of the most underdeveloped/under-utilized parts of their brains. This is a great analogy for understanding the teenage brain: “For comparison’s sake, think of the teenage brain as an entertainment center that hasn’t been fully hooked up. There are loose wires, so that the speaker system isn’t working with the DVD player, which in turn hasn’t been formatted to work with the television yet. And to top it all off, the remote control hasn’t even arrived!” (How Stuff Works)

Let me tell you a story about my amazing husband (it’s okay to tell you this because I asked and he said sure). When he was 19 he got fired from a job. His car had broken down on the freeway and stressed out and overwhelmed, he really just didn’t want to take the time to call off work. So they fired him. Here he was living on his own, now unemployed, and kind of unraveling. Do you know what he did with his last $20.00? He bought an M.C. Escher print at the mall because it was cool. The Mr. eventually worked this adulting thing all out. He is, in fact, an awesome husband and even more amazing father. But who he was then is miles away from who he is now. The same goes for me. And if you are being honest, the adult you is very different from the teenaged you. If not, you’re probably doing this adult thing wrong.

When adults read YA literature, we must do so with a better understanding of who teens are. Teen characters aren’t going to make the same decisions as adult characters because teens aren’t future thinking in their decision making. They don’t have the benefit of wisdom and the experience that comes from trial and error. A lot of times, these are all new situations to the teen characters in books just as teens in real life are facing these experiences for the first time. As a side note, this is one of the reasons why the age of consent matters and we must stop romanticizing the idea of the adult man with underage girls and vice versa, but that is a rant for another day.

It’s unfair to the literature to put adult expectations on teenaged characters. Teenagers are not mini adults, they are older kids (though don’t ever call them that, they don’t like it). Was Harry Potter sometimes really whiny? Yes, yes he was. And you know, so are most young teens. Are teens sometimes impulsive? Yes, and this is actually developmentally correct behavior, as is being selfish, making bad decisions, and having high and extreme emotional reactions.

Maybe I said all of this better yesterday on Twitter.

Here’s the important takeaway:

For more information on how the teenage brain is different from the adult brain, check out these resources:

Wired: You Call This Thing Adaptive?
NIMH: The Teen Brain, Still Under Construction 
PBS Frontline: Inside the Teenage Brain
A Parent’s Guide to the Teen Brain
How Stuff Works: Are teenage brains really different from adults?

The School for Good and Evil: A World without Princes Booktrailer

As you may recall, our Tween reviewer Ceci LOVED The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani. When I got a copy of the next book, which comes out in April of 2014, I knew I had to get her to read it for us. There was squealing. She is reading it now and will get back to us with her review. Until then, check out the very amazing looking trailer that debuted over at Entertainment Weekly.

But in case you don’t know the beginning of the story, here’s the trailer for book 1:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqnU3ZqvL1k?rel=0]

And here’s the trailer for book 2, A World without Princes:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDHTWDnwBbU?rel=0]
The School for Good and Evil: A World without Princes by Soman Chainani debuts April 15, 2014 from Harper Teen. ISBN: 978-0-06-210492-2.

The #SVYALit Virtual Panel #2 Recap

Yesterday we had our second Google Hangout on Air as part of the #SVYALit Project. Author Carrie Mesrobian (Sex and Violence) moderated our virtual panel which included authors Stephanie Kuehn (Charm & Strange), Rachele Alpine (Canary) and Brendan Kiely (The Gospel of Winter). Below the video is a recap of the conversation with minute indicators should you want to go view a specific part of the video.

This was a great discussion as we talked about how institutional culture – including the church and sports culture – can put the needs of the institution above individuals and the danger that lies in that. They also had some great discussion about the important of friends and allies in breaking the silence surrounding sexual abuse and what we expect of our main characters in terms of likability and decision making. And tucked in here is some great discussion about the gray areas of consent and how we fail to talk to our teens about this.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzIriaUoQ5k?rel=0]

A Brief Introduction of Each of the Books by the Authors

The Gospel of Winter – 16-year-old boy who recognizes that the relationship he has with his priest is not love but abuse. Kiely is from the Boston area and he wanted to do a story about the betrayal and the real courage it took to stand up and say that they had been abused. Young people were the ones who really opened the floodgates of this revelation. GOW is about a culture of fear that prizes secrecy and uses that secrecy to create an atmosphere of abuse and it relates to the post 9/11 culture.

Charm and Strange – A book about a boy who literally thinks he is a monster and what has led him to believe that. He is afraid he will hurt others so he actively pushes them away and the past narrative reveals why he thinks this way about himself. It is about him trying to integrate his past in his present together to be a more complete person. Trying to convey that for someone who was struggling with his mental illness to be seen as someone strong and resilient and doing his best given the circumstances.

Canary – A young girl dealing with grief, Kate, is thrown into a new school environment that has a strong sports culture that idolizes the basketball team and its players. She slowly cedes parts of herself to this culture until she is sexually assaulted and has to decide whether or not to reveal the truth or to be silent. It is told in multiple formats flipping between a traditional narrative and using poetry to reveal Kate’s inner thoughts.

Discussing the Idea of Institutional/Hero Worship and How They Ask Victims to Remain Silent (11:35)

Brendan Kiely: When we attack institutions, the people involved in those institutions sometimes take it as an attack on themselves. For some, it is a belief that the institution/the community as a whole are more important than an individual member. They begin to protect itself over the people that they are supposed to be serving. It’s never okay to sacrifice young people to protect the institution.

While researching GOW, Kiely learned that many of the priests guilty of abuse were abused themselves, they were perpetuating the cycle of abuse. If you are going to promote people to be community leaders (including teachers) there needs to be good education on how to best serve.

It has a lot to do with the “adoring” a certain figure, letting that figure stand in.

18:00 – We have to have open conversations about sex so that we can have real conversations about both sex and sexual violence. That failure to talk about it allows these types of things to happen.

Rachele Alpine: (20:00) – We are taught from a young age to revere certain people through our media and experiences. The culture that is created that exalts and celebrates certain people over others, in this case athletes, and speaking out against this culture becomes a problem of me against them.

Carrie Mesrobian: Discusses the entitlement of this culture and how it takes over everyone’s time and priorities; how it becomes the culture instead of becoming PART of the culture. There is also a good portrayal of how the male character grounds down Kate’s voice to the point that she starts to really lose pieces of herself.

Stephanie Kuehn (24:00) – Here we see the institution of the family and how it too can became a breeding ground for dysfunction and abuse. Kuehn wanted to discuss Win’s challenge to separate himself and his family, the evil that is in his family and whether or not it is in him. In this family, you are either a victim or a victimizer and it is better to be the one with power, the victimizer. Why don’t people speak up? Because of family bonds and the idea of personal narratives and blame.

The Response and Importance of Friends (26:00)
How do friends help or hinder people speaking the truth?

Carrie Mesrobian: If we can learn anything from Harry Potter – and really, I think we can learn everything from Harry Potter – it’s the importance of friends.

Brendan Kiely (27:00) – People need to find the space where two people can be equal in a relationship in order to form more honest relationships with each other. Adolescence are beginning to understand this process, how to share vulnerability, how to become allies. The danger is when a person can begin to feel like an outcast; it can require such a leap to bring that person back into the fold. In GOW, the MC doesn’t want to see himself as a victim. That’s okay that he wants to try to maintain a normal life, but he has to find a way to integrate that part of his life – his victimhood – into his overall identity or he will remain fractured. But there is a character in the story that reaches out to him and says they will be there for him. These types of stories allow teens to have conversations about how to be a better friend and ally. Friends are more important than family when you are 16. Having books like these to talk about how to support each other to be better friends is so important, there isn’t a lot of that in our culture.

Stephanie Kuehn (31:00) – For Win, all of his relationships have been destructive. He believes it is inevitable that he will hurt the people around him. But Kuehn wanted to create some characters struggling with their own issues who didn’t understand Win but we’re willing to reach out to him and say they were there for him. These characters demonstrate empathy; empathy and having someone care about you even when you can’t care about yourself can be that spark that makes you reach for healing. Compassion is a powerful gift to give to someone else.

Rachele Alpine (34:00) – The important part of Kate’s story is that she eventually recognizes that these people who have said they are her friends really aren’t. Her brother is the voice of reason that she refuses to listen to. “When you do find the courage to speak out, it might not always be the first or second person who listens to you. Keep looking and keep searching for that person who will.” You deserve to be heard. This message is part of Kate’s journey, she needs to make sure she is being heard.

Talking About Sex Scenes and Consent (36:00)
How do you look at the consent?

Rachele Alpine (37:00) – Poetry is used to reveal Kate’s real voice. In it we see that even though she says yes to Jack when they have sex, we see here that she is more being pressured into by Jack and by her friends. Kate is questioning it and doesn’t really want to do it.  To Kate, it is something she feels she needs to do to stay with Jack (which reminds me that we need to write that post about guilt/manipulation and how it can muddy the consent discussion). The gray areas of consent: we don’t talk enough about what sexual assault can be and what consent is. Teenagers know that someone forces themselves on you, that’s rape, but they don’t understand the finer elements of consent.

Carrie Mesrobian: Most young people’s idea of consent that silence and letting things happen is the same thing as consent. They need to understand that saying yes – enthusiastic consent – matters. (42:00)

Talking About the Main Characters (43:00)

Carrie Mesrobian: The main characters in these stories are important because they aren’t the noble, sympathetic character who was raped by knife point in the bushes. They are unlikable characters who don’t always make the right choices and we are still supposed to feel compassion for them.

Stephanie Kuehn (44:00) – Why would Win be likable? He is arrogant, cold, protective. There is no perfect victim, the idea doesn’t even make sense. For any kid that is victimized, we should care about them no matter who they are or what they are like; we need to protect them at all costs. If we can’t, that says a lot more about us as adults then it does the kids.

Brendan Kiely (47:00) – Adain imagines this scene where he sees the community seeing him as a monster. Kiely was consciously trying to make connections between the novel Frankenstein. Aidan is created in some sense by the circumstances of his abuse because you can’t not be affected by that. Just like in the novel Frankenstein, Adain might be described as a monster, but just as in Frankenstein Aidan, the “monster”, is actually the most human. If we are going to honor the victims of sexual abuse it does an injustice to paint them into a rosy picture rather than allow them their full humanity. It seems like a worse injustice to not allow our characters to be as messed up as people who aren’t victim of sexual violence. If we don’t have a character who is making poor choices, then it is harder to invite readers to discuss how to make better choices going forward. Unless we have muddy scenes, how else do we have real conversations with teens?

Here Brendan Kiely recommends the book Salvage the Bones

Carrie Mesrobians: The friends have moments of grace.

Listen to what Carrie says around the 52:00 mark about how we don’t allow characters with a history of sexual violence to have more complex narratives.

Rachele Alpine (53:00) –  Important to show some redemption for some of the characters. The most comments that she has gotten about Kate is that she shouldn’t get involved in the this world, but she needed to be flawed and we needed to see what she had to lose by speaking up.

Carrie Mesrobian (56:00) – People who do this don’t always look like evil, there is a banality to it. They tell themselves this story about themselves when they get up in the morning – they have a story they have to tell themselves to live with who they are. Having that nuance where we can hear that secondary victimization is so powerful.

Brendan Kiely (58:00) – If we insist on cardboard people it’s like we have no faith in people. At the end of the day it is celebrating how we emerge from the muck.

Stephanie Kuehn (59:00) – It’s so easy to qualify our compassion, but life is not black and white. Here she discusses reading Inexcusable by Chris Lynch.

Talking About the Ending (1 hour mark)

Stephanie Kuehn – There are no easy answers, but I wanted to show that empathy and friendship matter; that believing in yourself is what ultimately matters and moves us forward.

Rachele Alpine – Wanted to end it with the fact that you do move forward. At the end of the book Kate is not letting people silence her anymore.

Brendan Kiely – Wanted to end on the note that we are not alone. As victims we are not alone because there are other victims but also we are not alone because we can find the right communities and those communities can rally around the victims. Together we can work to make a better world then the world we found.

Carrie Mesrobian: “I love all 3 of the endings of these books because while they don’t show that the road ahead for any of the characters is going to be smooth, they kind of show that this is the reality of what you contend with when you deal with trauma but that you can be honest about it.” Read Carrie’s thoughts about the hangout on her blog.

The Next #SVYALit Google Hangout/Virtual Panel Will Be:

Consent Positive YA Lit: Looking at positive depictions of healthy relationships and consent in YA literature
Date: May 21st
Moderator(s): Christa Desir, Carrie Mesrobian, Karen Jensen

Confirmed: Courtney Stevens (FAKING NORMAL), Brandy Colbert (POINTE) 

The #SVYALit Project Virtual Chat/Google Hangout #2

I want to thank author Carrie Mesrobian for doing a great job of moderating this panel! And I want to thank authors Brendan Kiely, Rachele Alpine and Stephanie Kuehn for the great dialogue and their time. I will work on recapping it, but I do recommend viewing this discussion because a lot of great things were said.
Please do read their books. I think reading the books and then discussing them is so very important.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzIriaUoQ5k?rel=0]

Book Review: Killer Instinct by S. E. Green

Killer Instinct is described as Dexter for teens, and yet somehow it fails to draw you in the same way that the Dexter stories do. I will say that Dexter is very popular with several of my teens and I can see them clamoring for this book based on the subject matter alone. Read on for my full review.

Tagline: “Everyone has a dark side”

A Brief Recap

Lane is a teenager that knows she is a little off kilter, she has “urges”. Her parents both work for the FBI in the serial killers division (plot convenience number 1). She has a brother and a sister. She spends time regularly at the local animal shelter. She has few friends, actually she has one friend who happens to be an expert computer hacker (plot convenience number 2). She is emotionally stilted, quiet, a loner, of high intelligence. In fact, go down your serial killer checklist and it’s all there. Except it’s not really shown to us organically in the story, no Lane tells us, because Lane is a serial killer expert.

Early in the novel, Lane decides that her niche will be to get justice for all those wronged by criminals, and when she is caught in the act the press labels her the Masked Savior. So she gets to try and scratch her dark tendencies and feel good about it, yes just like Dexter.

When we first meet Lane, she has killed no one. But she really, really thinks she wants to. And then an infamous serial killer, the Decapitator, makes his/her yearly reappearance and draws Lane into a little game of serial killer cat and mouse.  As she investigates the case (made all the more easy because her mom is heading up the investigation and brings the files home), Lane learns that this time it is personal and parts of her past were hidden from her. I suspected several people along the way and was truly surprised by who the actual serial killer turned out to be, and I’m not entirely sure it fits because we didn’t see very many hints of it along the way.

A Deeper Look

There are, for me, the inclusion of a couple of problematic storytelling choices that contribute to what is commonly referred to as rape culture. Rape culture is defined as “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.  Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.” (Marshal University Women’s Center)

In the beginning of the book, Lane is watching the trial of a serial rapist. He is found innocent due to lack of evidence (of course, because aren’t they always) and she then pursues him in the act as her first act of vigilantism. This whole sequence was semi-graphic and potentially triggering, and it was a non-essential plot point. All we needed here was some type of serial crime that Lane could be drawn into. I felt that the inclusion of sexual violence as the go to crime reinforced negative cultural messages that suggest that sexual crimes against women can be used casually as a storytelling device and how easy it is for us to accept this notion as readers because we are so systematically used to it that we don’t even pause to consider its inclusion. My concern is that constantly seeing these types of sexual crimes as a storytelling device makes it easier for us to accept and glance over these crimes in the real world because we become enculturated to them. This is not a book about sexual violence that asks us to consider the immediate and after effects, but it is a book that uses an instance of sexual violence to propel this girl’s journey as she explores her personal inner darkness, so any crime would have done. It is also important to note that a majority of rapes are not in fact executed as these are by individuals who target strangers and crawl through their bedroom windows with a weapon; most people who are raped are actually raped by someone known to them and they continue to have a hard time getting their cases taken seriously because stories like these fuel the narrative that this is the only type of rape that is truly rape. In fact, 73% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim according to RAINN.

Of course you can also argue that since Lane goes after this man to get justice that it doesn’t, in fact, condone the sexual violence. But again, any type of crime would have sufficed as her catalyst. I would argue that anytime that sexual violence is used as a more casual story point without really exploring the ramifications and impact of said crimes then it is contributing to rape culture. And yes, I know that there are people who would argue this point.

There is another disconcerting scene which involves what appears to be a clear case of slut shaming. Slut shaming “is a concept in sexuality. It is a neologism used to describe the act of making any person feel guilty or inferior for certain sexual behaviors or desires that deviate from traditional or orthodox gender expectations, or that which may be considered to be contrary to natural or religious law.” I’m sorry but the definition is from Wikipedia. But I am of two minds about this scene:

     “My sister’s a slut. It’s common knowledge she’s already had sex several times, and according to gossip she gives okay hand jobs but is excellent at fellatio. 
     I walked in on her having sex last year. She didn’t miss a beat as she kept riding the guy and glanced over to me in the doorway.
    She’ll end up pregnant. Watch. Or with an STD. Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to the little sister I carried two blocks home after she wrecked on her new bike.” (page 34, may be subject to change as this is a pre-published ARC).

Here’s the deal: that reads as straightforward slut shaming. She even uses the word slut. BUT, she is also clearly a sociopath with emotional and intimacy issues, a tendency to OCD behaviors which include not liking bodily fluids, etc. – so she isn’t necessarily a reliable narrator. You could argue that since we are receiving this message through the filter of Lane, showing her psychological issues, the book as a whole is not slut shaming. The problem is, Lane’s language in this scene follows the cultural norms of slut shaming, so many readers will take at face value that Daisy’s behavior makes her a bad person.

In the end, I don’t recommend this book because I thought it failed to tell the story in a way that really drew the reader in, because of the problematic elements mentioned, and because the story is not unique and, in my opinion, it has been done better in some more recent books. For example, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga tells the same story in a way that really demonstrates the internal conflict of Jazz, the son of a notorious serial killer who fears he will end up like his dad; Jazz’s story really manages to draw you into his darkness and still elicit compassion. In a slightly similar vein, I also highly recommend The Naturals by Jennifer Lynne Barnes, similar plot points as Killer Instinct except the main character is not prone to the same urges as Lane. Having said that, this may be the only YA title that looks at this type of darkness inside of a female character. And I do believe that more casual readers just wanting to read more psychological thrillers will probably be satisfied. Kirkus called it a “zippy, gripping psychological drama” (Kirkus Reviews March 01, 2014).

Christie brought this ARC home from ALA Midwinter for me because she knows I like psychological thrillers. As a pre-published ARC it is possible that things may change in the editing process. Coming in May 2014 from Simon Pulse. ISBN: 9781481402859. Ages 14 and up, some mature content including sexual violence and violence.

THAT Scene in Divergent

This is not a movie review, but I am going to discuss one particular scene in the movie. So, if you haven’t seen the movie, be forewarned.

In the book Divergent, Tris joins a faction that valued bravery and fearlessness – Dauntless. As part of the second stage of her training she is forced to go into her subconscious and face her darkest fears. In the book, one of her fears is a fear of intimacy. This fear stems in part from the fact that she has grown up in a family – in a faction even – that is not overly expressive (which was changed some in the movie as we see her parents hug her and hold hands). It also stems, in part, from her own knowledge of her inexperience with relationships and the fact that she has been told that she is Divergent, a trait that puts her in great personal danger, and so she is guarded and trying to figure out who she can trust.

In the movie, this fear is changed drastically as we see Four sexually assault Tris. The scene begins with them kissing, then he tries to remove her shirt and she says “no”. He continues and the two end up on a bed. Tris then kicks him in the groin and hits him, thus ending the attack. She “wakes up” from the scene and is applauded by the audience. She looks at Four, embarrassed, and says “please tell me you didn’t see that.” And then she realizes the fear test isn’t over as she is confronted with one more situation.

There has been a lot of online discussion about this scene and I recommend that you read these posts about the topic linked on this Tumblr post: http://svyalitchat.tumblr.com/post/80504322821/posts-about-rape-culture-in-the-divergent-movie

I want to take a moment to share my thoughts:

This scene is problematic primarily because it didn’t even need to be in the movie. At all. It has been suggested that this is how the movie producers were able to communicate “fear of intimacy” on the screen. Except, intimacy is about more than sex. And fear of intimacy is NOT the same thing as a fear of sexual assault. It is dangerous and lazy to equate intimacy with sex. And such a casual and unnecessary inclusion of sexual violence is, in itself, problematic. It also changes how the character of Tris is portrayed on screen and what audiences are supposed to know about her through her fear landscape.

There has been a lot of good, important conversation about this scene online. I have been a part of some of that conversation and I’m growing concerned that even our conversation about the scene is a problem. I think we’re talking about it all wrong.

The first post I saw suggested this:

“Divergent marks the first time I have ever seen a teenage girl articulate, in no uncertain terms, that her body belongs to her. That she gets to decide who touches it, and how, and when. That her yes and her no are final, and unambiguous, and worthy of respect.” – from Medium.com

This post discusses how refreshing and empowering it was to a see a sexual assault on screen and see Tris fighting back and stopping the attack. And I agree, this can be a powerful and empowering message.  Girls need to know that they can fight back, that they have a RIGHT to fight back. Time and time again I have scene a girl be raped on screen and I did think it was so very important that, for once, the girl fought back and was able to stop an attack. I took my 11-year-old daughter to see this movie and as we left the theater and she was talking about it, one of the things that she mentioned was that if a guy ever tried to kiss her against her will she would fight.

Then Melissa at YA Book Shelf wrote a series of thoughtful posts on this scene, which I highly recommend you read (linked after the quote):

“If you accept that it may, indeed, instil a fear of sexual assault in teen girls, then one could further argue that it actually maintains the status quo of rape culture in Western societies rather than does away with it as Lalonde argues. Why? Well, quite frankly, because rape culture teaches young girls how not to be raped, rather than teaching young boys not to rape. While the movie may deter young boys from attempting to sexually assault young girls, if only to avoid a powerful kick to the groin, it also, simultaneously, teaches young girls that they have to do everything they can to avoid being raped, from screaming and saying “no” to hitting or kicking their assailant if and when he doesn’t listen or respect them, like the real Four does.” – from YA Book Shelf’s 3 Part Series on the Scene and Why it Matters (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Even on Twitter there has been some good discussion of this scene:

As you see, others have suggested that this scene is not empowering but damaging because it reinforces the cultural tendency to victim blaming by suggesting that “See, if a girl really didn’t want it she would FIGHT.” And this too is a legitimate concern. Because what if my daughter found herself in this type of situation and then found that she couldn’t fight, either out of fear or lack of strength? What then would she think of herself and what had happened to her?

But here’s the real problem with this conversation: IT IS STILL FOCUSED ON THE VICTIM. As we sit here and discuss whether or not the scene is an issue because of how the victim does or doesn’t respond in the scene, we are reinforcing the cultural norm that we have any right to expect any type of behavior at all from a victim. The truth is, until you are in this position, you have no idea how you will respond. And if you are being raped, your response DOES NOT MATTER. Whether you fight back or don’t fight back, the victim is never responsible for the fact that they are being raped or sexually assaulted. This conversation is so dangerous because it continues to, incorrectly, put the focus of discussions on sexual assaults on the behavior of the victims. We don’t need to be teaching our girls (and in many cases boys) to fight back, we need to be telling out boys (and in many cases girls), NOT TO RAPE.

This entire scene is not only unnecessary and story changing in its interpretation, but it is damaging because it reinforces a wide variety of negative cultural norms. Our response should not be to focus on the actions of Tris, but to focus the discussion on whether or not this scene enhances the story in any meaningful way – and it does not. There is nothing about this scene that enhances or reveals important information to the story or the characters, and there is nothing in this scene that enhances our culture and the way we view and treat women or the discussion of sexual violence – especially if we are going to continue to focus on Tris’ reaction. By focusing on Tris’ reaction we are, in fact, continuing to negatively contribute to this cultural discussion.

Every time we talk about sexual violence we must always steer the conversation back on track to the real heart of the matter: the crime and not the victim. We must not allow the talking points continue to be about the actions of a victim preceding or in the midst of the attack. The importance of this scene is not whether or not Tris fights back; no, the important thing to be discussing about this scene is how we continue to halfheartedly and without real thought use moments of sexual violence for storytelling and entertainment and how this use continues to create a culture that is willing to so easily glance over those moments on screen and in real life.

Whether or not Tris fights back is not the problem, but the fact that the scene was included at all is.