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Book Review: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

by Amanda MacGregor

Jefferson High School, Davisburg, Virginia. 1959.

In Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves, it’s been two years since the Supreme Court said all schools must integrate. The people in Davisburg have done everything they can to resist this order, including entirely shutting down their schools for months.

High school senior Sarah Dunbar is about to make history. She is one of ten black students who will begin attending an all-white school. Sarah and the other students arrive to find a large crowd of angry white people screaming at them, bellowing hateful words, and spitting at them. Sarah knew integration was going to be hard, but she had no idea it was going to be terrible. Day after day, Sarah and her friends are bullied, harassed, threatened, and attacked. The teachers don’t make it any better, choosing to ignore the way the white teenagers are acting, and usually being overtly racist and hateful themselves. Sarah, an excellent student who was on the college prep track at her old school and will attend Howard in the fall, is placed in remedial classes. In fact, all of the black students are in remedial classes, because of the assumption by the administration that the black students are intellectually inferior and have no place in more challenging classes. Through it all, Sarah is determined to hold her head high. She knows the movement is counting on her, that she can’t let it show that people are hurting her. She’s been told to look straight ahead, not talk back, not be caught alone, and just keep walking.

One of the most outspoken white students is Linda Hairston, who writes editorials championing segregation for the school newspaper. Linda mostly just mimics everything she’s heard her father, who is the editor of the local paper, say. When Linda and Sarah (along with Linda’s friend Judy) get paired up to work on a class project, Sarah begins taking Linda to task on her ideas and behavior. Unafraid to be outspoken, Sarah accuses her of not thinking for herself, suggests that deep down she doesn’t really share these same viciously hateful feelings that her father espouses. Sarah isn’t wrong. Suddenly, Linda is starting to feel shameful about the thoughts she’s been having about integration. She realizes she sort of likes and admires Sarah, but justifies these feelings by thinking that Sarah is special, that she’s better than the rest of “her people.” I don’t think characters need to be likeable or have redeeming qualities, but I will say that I initially balked at the narrative switch to Linda taking over the story. Talley does a fantastic job of getting in the mind of this young woman and letting her be hateful, ignorant, uncertain, curious, and complicated.

A large portion of the book is dedicated to another piece of this plot: Linda and Sarah’s growing attraction to each other. Sarah gives many hints early on that she’s been struggling with her sexuality. When she first notices Linda, she reminds herself that she’s supposed to force those feelings down, to act normal. When she thinks about kissing, she’s worried she’ll think the wrong things. Meanwhile, Linda has been spending a lot of time thinking about Sarah. But they’re just thoughts Anyway, Linda will marry Jack, her 22-year-old boyfriend, as soon as high school is done, escape her father’s house, and everything will be fine. Or at least that what she keeps telling herself, until she realizes that she can’t keep lying. She thinks, “I want Sarah the way I’m supposed to want Jack.” Both girls can only fool themselves for so long. When Sarah kisses Linda, their worlds break open. Suddenly, Linda and Sarah are questioning everything: their feelings for each other, their futures, the school integration, even the expectations from their families.

To call this novel powerful is an understatement. Told in alternate narration, the views Sarah and Linda give of this time in history are poignant. The unrelenting racism and violence is difficult to read, which is hardly surprising. The story is just as much Linda’s as it is Sarah’s. Both extremely stubborn girls confront their many preconceived notions. Both learn, change, and grow. Neither seems there simply to “teach” the other about the opposing side. Talley does an excellent job of showing how two young women do what they think they are supposed to do and act how they think they are supposed to act, only to discover that carving out their own futures might be possible. This book is an essential read. Talley tackles a lot in this novel, combining history, diversity, intersectionality, GLBTQ characters, family dynamics, and so much more. In less skilled hands, it would have been overwhelming. In Talley’s hands, it’s just masterfully knit together and moving.

An author’s note about this era in history and the research Talley did for her writing is appended, as is a section of Common Core-aligned questions for discussion.

Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 9/30/2014
Review copy courtesy of Edelweiss

Something Old, Something New: The Inner Lives of Teen Boys featuring Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas and Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian

Something Old: Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas

In my early days as a YA librarian, one of the first books I saw “go viral” if you will, was Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas. Early YA was often thought of primarily as “coming of age” or “problem novels”, and they focused on an intimate examination of the inner lives of teens as they wrestled with real world problems. When Rats Saw God came out, it spoke to teen readers in very real ways and this book was passed from teen to teen to teen. Teens would come in asking for it by name. And it was stolen numerous times, much like the works of Ellen Hopkins are, and each time I replaced it because it was so popular I couldn’t not have it on my shelves.

Publisher’s Description:

“For Steve York, life was good. He had a 4.0 GPA, friends he could trust, and a girl he loved. Now he spends his days smoked out, not so much living as simply existing.

But his herbal endeavors — and personal demons — have lead to a severe lack of motivation. Steve’s flunking out, but if he writes a one-hundred-page paper, he can graduate.

Steve realizes he must write what he knows. And through telling the story of how he got to where he is, he discovers exactly where he wants to be….”

Karen’s Thoughts:

Rob Thomas went on to become the creator of the Veronica Mars series, which if you know anything about that series you know that Thomas writes wise, witty and often searing characters – this is no exception. Originally published in 1996, I still hear readers of YA lit talking a lot about this title that features a teenage boy just trying to get through his senior of high school with a broken heart. Which makes it a perfect older YA pairing for the very new . . .

Something New: Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian

[Read more…]

Middle Grade Monday – BEST LIBRARIAN EVER!

I’ve been blessed this year with a crowd of readers in my 6th grade class. Real readers. Dedicated readers. Readers who, to the small of mind, might be described as ‘fan-girls’. My county is so large that they redistribute students on a yearly basis to make sure that new schools are filled (yes, we open multiple new schools every year) and that magnet options are open to ‘all’ students. Ask me personally if you want to know why ‘all’ is in quotes.

Anyway, I have a large number of dedicated readers in my 6th grade group – more than usual, and more enthusiastic about reading than I am used to. They also understand how the library works better than the students I have become accustomed to over the past few years. To whit, they know how to put books on hold.

[Read more…]

Tweens Read: That time I took The Tween and a friend to a book festival to meet Natalie Lloyd and Jennifer Ziegler

It is only incredible motherly love that could make me wake up at 4:30 A.M. on a Saturday and drive almost 5 hours. I mean, do you know how early 4:30 A.M. is? And on a Saturday. A SATURDAY!

The Tween, Natalie Lloyd and Tween 2

As you may know, earlier this year The Tween, who is now 12, had some amazing life moments in part thanks to the authors Natalie Lloyd (A Snicker of Magic) and Jennifer Ziegler (Revenge of the Flower Girls). So when I learned that both authors would be at this year’s Tweens Read book festival, I really wanted to try and take her so she could meet them if at all possible. And meet them she did. This is an account of our day, the day in which I woke up at 4:30 A.M. and drove two pre-teen girls almost 5 hours on a Saturday. And yes, I really do want a cookie.

Jacqueline Woodson was the keynote speaker. I didn’t hear a lot of what she said because the event far surpassed capacity and was standing room only, but you can find awesome quotes as people tweeted the day at #TweensRead14. There are also lots of great pics there. It is my understanding that there were over 1,600 people pre-registered, most of them kids ages 10 to 14. The halls were flooded with young, enthusiastic readers – at times almost impassable. It was a glorious sight to behold. [Read more…]

Sunday Reflections: “Don’t work from home”

“Don’t work from home. Don’t do any work at home,” she said to me as I filled out the new job paperwork.

Providence public library CC license

I laughed. I don’t mean I chuckled internally to myself. I mean I actually let out a guffaw and might have said something like, “Oh yeah, right. Like that’s gonna happen!” At which point she looked at me like I was a little off, and I clarified that my librarian brain is just always on.

I’m always working at home. Aside from our 100% unplugged camping vacations, I can’t think of a day I didn’t do anything I could reasonably consider librarian work outside of work hours in the past six months or so.  On any given day, here are things I do or have done outside of the library building and off the clock:

  • read Twitter, engage in conversations about new books, library topics, etc
  • read YA fiction that I would not have chosen if I didn’t think I’d need to talk to a teen about it
  • check and answer my work email
  • check and answer my professional non-work email
  • work on freelance projects that overlap with my skills and tasks at my library job
  • blog
  • participate on committee work for professional organizations
  • attend webinars
  • attend committee meetings, conferences, meetups, and other librarian work groups
  • bookmark potential program ideas as I browse Pinterest
  • dig into technology projects that I don’t have the focus to engage in at work, and need my techie husband’s advice and hand-holding to do
  • think, think, think, think about work

Which of these should we be doing at home? The logical answer is, “the ones that you wouldn’t do at work.” But there’s no clear line there.

If a webinar I want to attend happens outside of my scheduled hours I’m not going to skip it. And sometimes, those webinars that happen during my work hours are going to happen on my desk shift, so I’ll watch them later at home. The professional engagement is something that I can do at work because I gain ideas and guidance for my job, but I also do it to help other people and to remain connected to my PLN, much of which I consider to be friends, so we check in with one another professionally outside of work time. Even when it comes to freelance work, it’s not cut and dry. At a previous job, I was specifically told that working on my book, Serving Teens Through Readers’ Advisory was an acceptable off desk task, on a limited basis. They considered it professional development time that was good for me, good for my department, and good for our community. And for things like reading YA fiction, many of us are not afforded time on the clock to do this, but it’s clearly expected. Where is the line?

The other complicating layer is that I do this job because I love this job.

Being a librarian is a huge part of my identity. It’s not a job I clock out of and leave at work, it’s part of the framework through which I interact with the world. I field RA request for friends, do database instruction for family, and am generally a full time library ambassador whenever I’m not in the building. So asking me not to work from home feels a little like being told to leave myself at work before I go home for the night.  That dissonance is jarring.

As a part time librarian, I am constantly feeling pressure to fight against what could be perceived as a less professional position. In my unpaid time, I try hard to do more and learn more and extend myself further in more directions in order to maintain my relevance, stay up with trends, and race race race to keep the next big thing on the horizon. The irony of my situation is that I went part time in search of a better work-life balance, but now I never *really* leave work. There’s always another freelance opportunity to pursue, another book to read, another article to read, another Twitter conversation to follow.

Still, there are extremely good reasons for not doing what I so readily admit that I do!

If we are hired for twenty hours of work but give our employers forty, there will never be an impetus to change the job from a 20 to a 40 hour position. And that’s bad for librarianship. It sets the expectation for those who might follow us in our jobs to create a similar output, building in the tacit demand that we never can leave work at work. It deprives us of the time space we so desperately need to connect with the diverse interests that each of us has, which help make us interesting, well rounded people that our teens can connect with. It keeps us plugged in when we might be better served being unplugged, focusing on just being with the people we are actually with. It lets the librarian part of us supersede the partner, parent, sibling, friend parts.

Let’s have this conversation: where is your line? What does your employer expect? How do you feel about that policy, whether it’s stated or unstated? How do you plug in when you need to and unplug when you don’t? And finally, what does your ideal balance look like?


Friday Finds – September 25, 2014

This Week at TLT

Sunday Reflections: Why I Care About Kate Middleton’s Pregnancy, reflections on HG

Banned Books Week 2014

Middle Grade Monday – Have I told you lately that I love you? (A collaborative book list, eventually.)

The #SVYALit Project: Bleed Like Me and Emotional Coercion, a guest post by Christa Desir (part 1)

The #SVYALit Project: When Yes is Not Really Yes, Coercion is Not Consent (part 2)

The #SVYALit Project Hangout: It’s the End of the World as We Know It with Ilsa J. Bick, Elizabeth Fama and Mindy McGinnis

Something Old, Something New: Loosely Connected Short Story Collections

Why you need to be following the news about Sam Pepper, a discussion of the YouTube community and teen culture
Around the Web

YA Author Kiersten White has a new book out this week (which is amazing – read my review here) but it is also the anniversary of her ectopic pregnancy. It’s worth sharing so that everyone is aware of the signs. Writing YA and saving lives!

SLJ’s Digital Shift presents evidence tying college success to exposure to a high school librarian.

Denver students do the very thing the school board is trying to censor from their curriculum.

When students and teachers show more integrity than their administrative staff

Authors are killing it in the comments on SLJ blogs this week. See Patrick Ness and Francis O’Roark Dowell. You’d almost think you have to be smart to write for young people…

In other news of young people’s authors being smart all over the Internet, see this brilliant essay on Anne Ursu’s Tumblr

In honor of Banned Books Week, here’s an example of why we still need to raise awareness.

5 things we can learn from teenagers – on XOJane.

Questioning the maker movement (that didn’t take long.)

Robot Test Kitchen reviews Cubelets.

From Karen:

Do check out author Anne Ursu’s brilliant discussion of this week’s discussion of all things YA, because apparently adults that read YA are still being infantalized. Again. I love Ursu because she says things like this: “But, see, to those of us who write for children and young adults, men and women, this isn’t a market. These are people. We are writing for someone. And they deserve the best we can give them of ourselves.” Seriously, go read the whole thing.

And on the TLT Tumblr I reblogged a post that discusses the phenomenon that female art is “fan art” while male art is just “art”. It includes some interesting discussion about fandom in general and reiterates some of the points that Ursu makes above.

Book Review: Can’t Look Away by Donna Cooner

Publisher’s Description: 

Torrey Grey is famous. At least, on the internet. Thousands of people watch her popular videos on fashion and beauty. But when Torrey’s sister is killed in an accident — maybe because of Torrey and her videos — Torrey’s perfect world implodes.

Now, strangers online are bashing Torrey. And at her new school, she doesn’t know who to trust. Is queen bee Blair only being sweet because of Torrey’s internet infamy? What about Raylene, who is decidedly unpopular, but seems accepts Torrey for who she is? And then there’s Luis, with his brooding dark eyes, whose family runs the local funeral home. Torrey finds herself drawn to Luis, and his fascinating stories about El dio de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

As the Day of the Dead draws near, Torrey will have to really look at her own feelings about death, and life, and everything in between. Can she learn to mourn her sister out of the public eye?

Karen’s Thoughts:

It is interesting to note that just as I have been spending a lot of time witnessing and thinking about YouTube culture (see here and here), I started reading this book which demonstrates the power of YouTube culture.  [Read more…]

Why you need to be following the news about Sam Pepper, a discussion of the YouTube community and teen culture

Teen culture and celebrity is dominated these days by a force that many adults don’t pay enough attention to: YouTube. YouTube isn’t just a place where Tweens and Teens go to watch the latest music video, it is producing legitimate stars who make a serious amount of cash. YouTube culture is so big that the press has recently began running articles about how it is changing the way that tweens and teens become celebrities and many awards shows are including social media and YouTube awards in their categories. There are entire conferences devoted to YouTube, including VidCon which was created in part by John Green and his brother Hank.

It is also important to note that to date 18 YouTube celebrities have been accused of sexual impropriety, often against their teen fans that they meed at these very conferences. See also, The DFTBA Sexual Abuse Scandal.

Which brings us to Sam Pepper.

Sam Pepper is a UK YouTuber who is known for pulling of a variety of pranks. As pranks often do, they often cross a line that puts others into uncomfortable and sometimes into unsafe positions. Some of Sam Pepper’s previous pranks have included handcuffing girls to him against their will and demanding a kiss in order to be let loose. In another incident he used a rope to lasso girls and pull them into an embrace with him.

Earlier this week on Twitter the hashtag #ReportSamPepper went viral as Sam had posted a video called the Fake Hand Ass Pinch. Basically, he approached girls and as he engaged them in conversation he used his hidden hand to pinch their bum. As many observers correctly pointed out, this is in fact sexual harassment and it is something that many organizations are working tirelessly to end. See Stop Street Harassment for example.

But as the rallying cry went out against Sam Pepper, he produced another video with the notation that it was 2 of 3, although it is interesting to note that the original video included no such notation indicating that it was part of a series. In this video, women did the same thing to men.

[Read more…]

Something Old, Something New: Loosely Connected Short Story Collections

Short story collections, I have always found, are a hard sell. Unless your name is Stephen King, those seem to circulate well. In theory, it seems like short stories are a good idea of reluctant readers, and a great way to try and find a new author. But nope, a hard sell.

But occasionally, there are books that aren’t true short stories, but a collection of short stories that are connected in some way, usually by a reoccurring device or character. For today’s Something Old, Something New feature, I have a couple of those for you.

Something Old: Whirligig by Paul Fleischman

Brent Bishop is a 17-year-old boy who has just been involved in a terrible accident which results in the death of a girl named Lea. The truth is, he was trying to kill himself, but instead Lea is dead. Lea’s mother asks Brent to drive to four different locations and place a whirligig there in Lea’s honor. What comes next is 4 short stories about the various characters who find the whirligigs:

  • Weeksboro: Two 13-year old girls named Steph and Alexandra.
  • Bellevue: A 10-year old Korean-American boy named Tony.
  • Miami: A Puerto Rican man called Flaco.
  • San Diego: A 16-year old girl named Jenny. (from Wikipedia)

Whirligig was released in 1998, making it 16 years old now. At the time that this came out, I had been a YA librarian roughly 5 years. It was a fairly interesting story, though definitely not a big shelf mover. Fleischman is a classic YA author and new YA readers may want to check out some of his earlier works.

Something New: Let’s Get Lost by Adi Alsaid
[Read more…]

The #SVYALit Project Hangout: It’s the End of the World as We Know It with Ilsa J. Bick, Elizabeth Fama and Mindy McGinnis

Today as part of The #SVYALit Project we chatted with authors Elizabeth Fama (Monstrous Beauty, Plus One), Ilsa J. Bick (Ashes trilogy) and Mindy McGinnis (Not a Drop to Drink, In a Handful of Dust) about sexual violence in dystopian and post apocalyptic YA literature.

Some of the highlights of the conversation include:

Question 1: Do you think there are different challenges (easier/harder) in dealing with the issue of sexual violence or cultural misogyny in PA literature as opposed to contemporary.

Mindy McGinnis talked at length about some of the challenges she has had to NaDtD where men organize as a group and force women to barter sex for the goods they need to survive. But Elizabeth Fama reminds us that although this doesn’t necessarily happen in present day America, it does happen in other cultures around the world so it isn’t a far fetched idea of what happens when society breaks down so much as a reflection of what not only can but is happening.

Ilsa J. Bick spends time reminding us all that sexual violence is really about violence and power, it is a way for a person to assert their dominance over another person.

There was some very involved conversation about gender roles/norms and their part in sexual violence. This discussion also led to a discussion of whether or not our societal laws were the only things preventing many people from various forms of sexual violence. Mindy McGinnis talked about the need for their to be greater respect, particularly in terms of gender equality, to help curb the amount of sexual violence against women. The research tends to verify this need.

However, as Ilsa reminds us, woman can be and often are sexual offenders and men can be  and often are the victims of sexual crimes.

Question 2: Elizabeth Fama asks if writers use sexual violence in a post apocalyptic world as short hand for this world is evil.

Elizabeth talks about the idea that sexual violence is a spectrum and how every woman she knows has received some type of unwanted sexual contact. She tells the story of how her first experience occurred at the age of 10 when a man pinched her on the posterior. She states that she thinks that when you consider the whole spectrum of sexual violence, the statistics are probably much higher than we currently believe. Again, the research tends to bear witness to this as well.

Question 3: We were asked to consider what we can learn about sexual violence from the point of view of the victim/survivor.

Mindy McGinnis spoke at length about one of the characters in her book who was already gang raped once and chooses to take her own life as opposed to be taken hostage by a group of men whom she knows will rape her again.

Ilsa J. Bick then takes a moment to remind us all that there is no one way – and no right way – for the victim of any type of violence to process what happens to them. This is something YA literature can do, remind us all that not everyone handles their trauma the same.

Throughout the conversation it was emphasized repeatedly that anyone can be the victim of sexual violence; sexual violence happens to people of every gender, every sexual orientation, every age, and whether or not the fit conventional standards of what is consider “attractive” by their current culture.