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Monday, January 25, 2010


I found the above image on a blog called The Physics Geek, which had got it from somewhere else, while I was looking for a cliched image of a librarian, but couldn't resist. Of course, there's always Terry Pratchett's wonderful Librarian...

I wear two hats - well, three if you count the reviewing, but then, I have always thought of reviewing as an extension of my work as a teacher-librarian. I get excited when a new box of books arrives from the publisher, just as I do when there’s a book display at school - what goodies will I find this time? And when I have donated the beautiful new book to the library, I can tell the kids what it’s about, because I have read and reviewed it.

Writing for children is one of my hats, the other is librarianship. Both have to put up with folk who don’t understand what it is they do and why. As a children’s writer, I’m always hearing people ask carefully, “So - are you planning to do an adult book at some stage?” Translation: “When are you going to write a real book?” My answer to that is always:Never! I love what I’m doing and I enjoy the company. I remember one time when I went to a party at Allen and Unwin. When I arrived I chatted politely with those I saw there, but there were no familiar faces. The writers I met seemed nice enough, but the party was very dull, as far as I was concerned. Then Ann James, illustrator extraordinaire, appeared on the stairs and said, “The children’s writers are upstairs.” Up I went and there was a REAL party happening.

Most children’s and YA writers I have met are delightful. They know how to party. They know how to talk to kids. They share information about markets. They’re fun to be with.

But there are some, a minority I should add, who just don’t seem to understand that they are depending on the schools market for a large chunk of their income, who make clear their contempt for teacher-librarians, in their writing or in person. Their publishers really should explain it to them.

For example, there are those who whine about “gatekeepers” at conferences and writers’ festival panels. It seems that these library “gatekeepers” are preventing their works of genius from reaching what would be their adoring public if only...

Has it ever occurred to these folk that maybe their books aren’t going into the libraries for other reasons? Maybe Book Club wouldn’t take them, or Australian Standing Orders, so they didn’t turn up in schools as much as otherwise?

Or maybe the librarians just didn’t think their particular students would enjoy them? Any teacher-librarian worth his or her salt knows about this stuff - some of us write it ourselves. With an annual budget the sze of the average Grammar School’s petty cash, I can’t afford to buy books the kids are unlikely to read. I invite students in to help me choose from the book displays brought to the school and if they are choosing this book rather than that one, it’s the kids themselves who are the “gatekeepers”, not me. Only occasionally will I reject a book for my own library that I have read for reviewing, and that usually goes to our senior campus, so we're not actually keeping it out.

Tell you what, though, I have no complaints of school libraries with my own books! My Education Lending Right payments have always been about three times my Public Lending Rights. I expect a very good ELR payment for Crime Time:Australians behaving badly when the time comes, from what booksellers tell me.

If schools are not buying your book, perhaps a survey might help to find out why. If nothing else, it will bring your books to the attention of people who might not have come across them. But publicly calling librarians “gatekeepers” definitely won’t help!

Then there are those whose idea of a school librarian is based on one they remember from their childhood, who perhaps didn’t let them borrow from the adult shelves or maybe told them to be quiet. You know - the cliched woman with glasses and a bun? I wear glasses myself and ended up haing to get a haircut to avoid the cliche. In summer, of course I had to put my hair up!

The worst offender, in many ways, is J.K.Rowling, with her Madam Pince, whose first name you never learn, unlike the school nurse (Poppy Pomfrey). Madam Pince works her guts out, day and night, every day except Christmas, with no assistance (unless there’s a house-elf doing the shelving) and never even appears at Christmas dinner. (Maybe she has a loving family to spend it with?) She is described as thin, irritable and “vulture-like”. Talk about cliches! Of course, I love the Harry Potter books, but I wish she hadn’t done that. It jars me every time I re-read the series.

Naturally, I wouldn’t boycott her books, they’re too good in every other way and Hogwarts is a fantasy school. And at least there is no doubt that Madam Pince more than pulls her weight at the school and she only kicks out kids who are eating in the library. Well, wouldn’t you? How would you like to remove half-eaten sandwiches from between the books and banana skins from the carrels after every lunchtime, before going off to teach your own class?

Other writers are less kind about their library teachers. I’m thinking in particular of one whose first book I read and loved and showed to all the kids. I even recommended it for a class text.

Then her second book came out and I bought that for the library and opened it eagerly to read it.

I was horrified and disappointed to find her portrayal of the school librarian in her novel. The woman lurks in the library like some sort of spider and throws out any student who dares to enter, let alone want to borrow a book. Pardon me? Any librarian who behaved like that wouldn’t last a week in a modern school! (Well, maybe Rupert Giles of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer would, and he does kick out kids who aren’t there to look up monsters for slaying, but he’s cute. You can forgive him)

And it shows a huge misunderstanding of the role of the modern teacher-librarian which I will come to shortly.

Call me a gatekeeper if you like, but I don’t see why I should spend my precious budget on a writer who has shown not only a misunderstanding of my job but contempt for me and my colleagues. If a student requested one of her books I would buy it, but fortunately I have received some for reviewing, so those are the ones on my library’s shelves. I won’t go out of my way to look for her books othewise. That said, I have never allowed this to affect my reviews of them. I just won't buy them - and if I feel that way, there may be others. Is it worth alienating your market for one moment of satisfaction getting fictional revenge on the horrible librarian who terrified you as a child?

Contrast this with Australian SF writer Sean McMullen, whose first novel featured a world ruled by librarians. Word got around and suddenly Sean was a bestseller. And libraries have continued to buy his books ever since.

Nobody says your librarians have to be heroic, but for heaven’s sake, check your facts before subscribing to the image of the cross woman in bun and glasses! Would you buy books by someone who sneered at what you do? Hey, think of all the people who do sneer at children’s writers! Think of the adult novel image of the fluffy children’s writer. Yet you’re doing a job that requires skills that few people possess. So is the teacher-librarian.

Which brings me to my next point. Teacher-librarians don’t just process books and check them in and out. They work with their colleagues to design curriculum. They use their knowledge of children’s and YA literature and what kids are reading to choose books and match them to readers. They teach research skills, something that is vital in this day and age. They teach literacy skills. They arrange writer events - yes, the events to which you might or might not be invited. They run reading programs.

Yet since Principals got access to the purse strings in the state system, they have mostly had the responsibility to save money and the first place they always save it is in the library. In Victoria, Australia, where I live, you can’t even study teacher-librarianship any more, unless you study it on-line through an interstate university. There is a perception that you don’t need anybody in the library or that any idiot can stamp books when needed.

Pity I didn’t know this when I was one of thirty students chosen out of five hundred applicants to study librarianship. It was the toughest course I ever did, harder and more exhausting than my Honours degree. And you have to keep up to date, as in any other profession.

Of course - it’s all stamping books! Why didn’t I realise this?

Some primary schools have no one at all; a friend of mine is currently fixing up a library abandoned since the school got rid of its library staff altogether. It’s her son’s school, she’s a volunteer and she’s a qualified librarian. Lucky school. At least until he goes to high school.

Of course, there are those who think hard copy books are already out of date; I recall one of our Principals who was furious when a librarian bought a set of encyclopaedias, because “they look it all up on the Internet now!”

So watch out - you could be next.

If you want libraries to keep buying your books and inviting you to speak and run workshops, you should be fighting to keep professionals in them - they are the ones who know what you do and work with you to keep literacy going and get the school to buy your book in multiples for reading circles and class sets. If you think it can all be done by English teachers, forget it - they are busy with their own teaching and I wish I had a dollar for every English teacher who admitted to me that they read very little outside of the class texts because they just have no time for anything else. It’s true, too, they don’t, really they don’t have time, with all the things expected of teachers these days. If they do take on this job because the Principal got rid of the professionals in the library, then something else has to go.

And the few books they read may not be yours.

Think about it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

F2M: The boy within. By Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy. Melbourne, Ford Street, 2010.

Eighteen-year-old Skye is a member of an all-girl punk rock band. Skye has never felt like a girl. Inside, (s) he is Finn, a boy. Making the decision to let Finn be outside as well as in involves a lot of work. How do you tell your family and friends and the members of your feminist rock band that you’re going to undergo female-to-male treatment and surgery? Fortunately, there’s a family precedent: great-uncle Albert … or is that great-aunt Alberta?

Skye/Finn could easily be a victim, but refuses. It isn’t going to be easy for anyone, but (s)he decides, finally, that family, friends and rock band will just have to live with it. And they do.

The book goes into enormous detail about the procedures involved in what is known as FTM. It’s a lot less common than the other way around – male to female – although it has been in the news in the last couple of years, when a man who had kept his female “equipment” had a baby because his wife couldn’t. I knew a female-to-male myself. Unlike Skye, "Jan" became “David” in her/his forties. Nobody, but nobody dared to call Jan a woman, even when she was! And David’s family and friends accepted it as Finn’s family do in the novel. At his funeral, the nephews and nieces referred to "Uncle David", even when he was no longer there to get upset.

The novel also explores the punk rock sub-culture, which is interesting in its own right.

Ford Street Publishing has become known for taking on controversial subjects. It probably needs an author as well-known and respected as Hazel Edwards to get away with this one. Ryan Kennedy, her co-author, is himself an FTM, so knows what he is talking about.

Perhaps an afterword with a URL or organization, if any, within Australia might have helped, so that those to whom the book applies don’t have to do all the web searches that Skye/Finn did in the course of the novel.

It’s well-written and answers a lot of questions. There are some likable characters in it and some nice touches of humour. There’s even the whimsical presentation of a couple who are a female-to-male and a male-to-female. Who are, incidentally, managing just fine. Finn doesn’t like the FTM, Rodney, but hey, he doesn’t have to.

It will certainly appeal to those teenagers who are asking themselves questions about their own gender identities.

Whether or not it will have appeal for ordinary teenagers I am not sure. I suspect they will be uncomfortable with it, though this doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be out there. Will kids who say, “That is so gay!” about anything negative get enthused about characters who are not actually gay but have gender issues? I won’t know until I have put this in my library and seen how the students react. Watch this space.

Emel Alp Sari - new link

Recently, I got a "friend" request from SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) from someone of whom I'd never heard. Usually, it's from people I have met. You can never tell with these things; sometimes people's details are hijacked. I couldn't take a chance. So I Googled Emel Alp Sari and found that she was a freelance children's book illustrator of German background. I emailed her to make quite sure the request had come from her, in case it was an attempt at a virus and she replied that the request was indeed from her - she had come across a book of mine, Your Cat Could Be A Spy, in Turkey of all places! Nice, eh? :-)

So I have accepted her friend request and I am adding a link to her page in case you're a publisher of children's books or education titles (she seems to have a lot of those under her belt) and would like to take a look at her web site.

Welcome to my blog, Emel!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What I'm re-reading #3: Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone

I have read this series many times, mainly because it's my comfort reading, like the books of Tolkien, Kerry Greenwood and Terry Pratchett. I know how it's going to end. I know for sure that Snape is a tormented good guy, not a villain (but then I suspected this from the second book onwards, though I must admit, I never suspected why he was with the Forces of Light and I still can't see any hints during the series, but other fans did).

And now I am back at the beginning, back where Harry, the "male Cinderella" (a term we used in second year Middle English Literature at Monash University)discovers the truth about his heritage. I did suspect, even then, that his aunt Petunia was simply jealous of her sister and resented her gifts. I was right about that.

I remember buying this one at the Children's Book Week Fair after it had been recommended to me by Alison Goodman, a fellow writer who has gone on to do a lot better than me in the world of speculative fiction. We were both on the committee of Aussiecon 3, the last Melbourne World SF Convention, and used to chat on the way to meetings.

I enjoyed it enough to buy the next one when I saw it. By Prisoner of Azkaban I had begun to realise that this was going to be more than just another children's series. Already we had a world where an innocent man, such as Sirius Black and even the lovable Rubeus Hagrid, could be imprisoned and tortured by nightmarish creatures on the Minister's say-so. Not to mention that the word "democracy" doesn't seem to be in the vocab of the wizarding world.I knew now that there was slavery in the wizarding world that seemed so glamorous in the first novel. And I was never easy with the casual way in which animals were turned into inanimate objects by the wizards. I mean, why would you need to turn a living animal into a pin cushion?

But mostly, I wondered about the life of a teenager in Harry's world. Think about it: if you're a young wizard, you may be able to do magic (but not at home!) but you can't hang around the mall, except on occasional visits to Hogsmeade. You can't go on Facebook or Myspace or Livejournal. Your probable only source of clothes is Madam Malkin's Robes - hardly the height of fashion!

And forget about being on the phone with your friends for hours on end - not unless you want to kneel in the fireplace with your head stuck in among the ashes. Eeew!

It is indicated in the novels that there are wizarding rock musicians and maybe even that they have concerts, but you'd probably have to go by Floo Powder or with your parents or on your broomstick if they trust you, because the wizarding community is small and scattered and you can't do Apparition till you're seventeen.

And you can probably only hear them play, the rest of the time, on the same radio station as Celestina Warbeck, that star of the sixties! No doubt there's wizarding technology of which we haven't heard, but the thing is - we haven't heard of it, right?

No TV. No movies unless you sneak off to the local Muggle cinema. Probably Fred and George do. But it's not a part of wizard culture and I suspect parents who would rather not take a chance on having Muggle neighbours find out about their world get very stroppy if their kids do this.

As a teacher-librarian, I don't envy Madame Pince, who, with no computers and not even typewriters, must have to put up with hand-written card catalogues and seems to be working day and night, every day but Christmas Day, alone. If she has a budget and a collection policy, we never hear about it. And getting back to the teens, imagine her reaction if some Hogwarts student wanted to read Twilight or Dolly Magazine instead of spellbooks!

No, thanks, I'm glad I was not brought up in Harry's world. But I do love reading about it. And as an adult I love the references to folklore and alchemy in even the first novel. I intend to keep re-reading them.

Monday, January 18, 2010

JESSICA’S GUIDE TO DATING ON THE DARK SIDE By Beth Fantaskey. Camberwell:Penguin, 2010

Jessica Packwood knows she was adopted as a baby by the Packwoods, who were in Romania at the time, studying a local culture. She has grown up in the US and attended a normal high school with the standard complement of bullies, bitchy cheerleaders and nice farm boys.

When gorgeous Romanian exchange student Lucius Vladescu informs her that she’s a vampire princess and his destined bride, their union needed to prevent a vampire clan war, she reacts as you’d expect – no way! But Lucius isn’t that easily deterred. And he has a useful gift for her: Growing Up Undead: A Teen Vampire’s Guide To Dating, Health and Emotions. Of course, there are a couple of things to distract him, such as the above-mentioned bitchy but attractive cheerleader, and his success on the school basketball team…

This is the latest teen vampire romance. The ending is predictable (isn’t it always?), but kids like predictable, so fair enough.

I always wonder, when reading these novels, what would happen if the male vampire was pimply, fat and picked his nose. I’d really love to know why these vampires always seem to be aristocrats (a bit like Tolkien Elves, really), why the heroine is always vital to the survival of the vampire world. (Of course, I did read some years ago that folklore vampires tend to be aristocrats because aristocrats in general are bloodsuckers…)

But then, I’m just a cynical adult who has read far too many of these books since they became popular. And right now, this is what teenage girls want to read. At least this one has a sense of humour. There are some very funny scenes in it, including several letters home from Lucius to his Uncle Vasile about the weirdness of American culture, how you can’t get decent food (apart from pizza, he likes that) or clothes, how they decorate grubby bits of forest in their homes at Christmas and how his betrothed is attracted to a peasant!

The book is well-written and will, among other things, appeal to reluctant readers who will appreciate the shortness of the chapters.

Despite my cynical-adult feelings, I thought it was fun and I know that teenage girls will enjoy it too.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

HARRY, A HISTORY By Melissa Anelli. London: Penguin, 2008

Some time in the late 1970s, I went with my family to the airport to wait for my aunt to arrive. It was going to be a long wait and I went for a browse in the airport shop. There, I saw a book called Star Trek Lives! which had been written by some women who’d been heavily involved in Star Trek fandom, right back when it first started in the 1960s.

I’d sort of known other people liked the series and had a vague memory of a campaign to keep it on the air, but that was all. After reading the book, I went off to find fellow fans and the local club and fanzines… Hey, I’d never dreamed that people wrote fan fiction to keep themselves going when there was no Star Trek to watch, or to answer questions for themselves and others – like, what happened in the Mirror Universe after Kirk and his friends went home? What kind of people are Vulcans in a universe where everyone is violent and nasty? What kind of society do the Klingons have? Star Trek Lives let me know that this sort of thing was going on, and what kind of activities fans got up to. For many years, I wrote fan fiction, went to conventions and hung out with fellow Trek fans, some of whom are still my friends.

When I opened Harry, A History, written by Melissa Anelli, American Potter fan and webmistress of the hugely popular web site The Leaky Cauldron, I found myself nodding in recognition. I’d been there. I, too, had found something that excited me and gave me something to discuss, that let me be creative. I’d made costumes, stitched tapestries and appliqués (one as part of a hanging for a children’s ward in a hospital), written dozens of fan stories and articles and zine reviews that led to professional writing. I, too, had been involved in charity fundraising ( still am – a bunch of Melbourne fans go out collecting for the Royal Children’s Hospital during its Good Friday Appeal). I, too, was familiar with fannish politics and the kind of fans who just don’t understand that this is fiction.

Melissa Anelli wasn’t one of the original Potter fans. She discovered the first book when her sister made her get a copy for light reading while shopping for university text books. While she enjoyed it very much, it took another couple of years and a job she hated to get her further into this universe. Somehow, she found herself becoming more and more involved, even taking time off work for supposed family emergencies to go to England when new books in the series came out.

In this very enjoyable and entertaining history of the American branch of Potter fandom, the author also tells how Jo Rowling managed to sell her first book and how many people promoted and supported her manuscript.

And yes, I think as a history of a fandom, it's a Potter parallel to Star Trek Lives!, though not as gushing, thank heaven.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Forbidden Fruit by Kerry Greenwood. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2009. ISBN 9781741759822

This is the latest novel about the baker Corinna Chapman, who runs her bakery, Earthly Delights, in the middle of Melbourne, with the help of her apprentice Jason (a muffin-making genius), her two shop assistants, Kylie and Goss, who want to get into soap opera and her cat Horatio. Lucky Corinna has a gorgeous lover, Daniel Cohen, who is the actual detective, but shares in his cases.

As usual, the novel is a hoot. No murders, just a case of a missing couple, Joseph and Mary - er, Manny and Brigid, two teenagers who have run off together just before Christmas, Corinna's least favourite time of year (bah, humbug!). Brigid is part of a rich but nutty evangelist family who subscribe to a cult that believes Jesus was rich and who are waiting for a miraculous child called Shiloh, Child of Peace. Of course, there are miracles and miracles and in the twenty-first century there is more than one way to create your own. Brigid is heavily pregnant and her horrible parents want her back, but not for her own benefit.

And then there is Serena the rose-loving donkey and the carol-singers upstairs who have their own animal-rights agenda, despite their pretty voices.

The author carefully sets up her Christmas story so that you have the full Holy Family scene. But she does it with a broad wink.

As usual, the novel ends with recipes, after the usual group feast at Insula, the Roman-themed apartment block where Corinna lives. I haven't tried the recipes yet, but will - unlike the recipes at the end of some books, Kerry's actually work - she makes them herself.

You could probably read this book on its own, but why not go back and read the rest in the series if you haven't? They're well worth it.