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Friday, January 24, 2014

Picture Book Rant

“Let’s read Strawberry Shortcake!” my five-year old shouts.  I groan.  I comply.  I inwardly cringe every time I have to exchange the word: “berry” for “very.”  (This occurs berry often when you read the Strawberry Shortcake books.)

I beg her to let me read “Harry the Dirty Dog,” or “If You Give a Pig a Pancake.”  Doctor Seuss books are always fun.  Recently the “Pinkalicious” books have tickled my fancy, and “The Polar Express” is so gorgeous I want to reread it immediately after I finish it.  And whatever happened to “Goodnight Moon?”

I think cartoons happened to great picture books. 

Cartoons and popular toys caught our children’s attention; publishers caught on to that fact, and began to spew out a ton of what I think of as “commercial” or trademark fiction.  So, stores are full of books like:  “Barbie:  I Can Be a Baby Doctor,” where Barbie decks herself out in scrubs and high heels (!) and shadows a pediatrician, a woman who also wears heels.  We get the dreaded Strawberry Shortcake books, books that retell kids’ movies, like “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” and books based on popular kids’ shows, like “Hannah Montana,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Luckily, my five year-old isn’t into mutated turtles, but she does love “Totally Spies” books based on a cartoon she hasn’t even seen.

These books aren’t all that bad.  The Scholastic company publishes many of them, and they are geared toward helping kids learn to read.  I’m sure they motivate many reluctant readers, but for me, the joy is sucked right out of reading to my child every time I have to force myself to say: “What a berry good idea!  That sounds just berry-licious!”

So, we made a new rule.  For every “trade” book I have to read, I get to choose the next one.  This way, my daughter is still exposed to the likes of Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown of “Goodnight Moon” fame, and the fun artwork of the “Fancy Nancy” books.  In addition, we can still peruse the aisles at the library and meet new book friends like: “No, David!” or “The Night I Followed My Dog.”

So, tell me your favorite picture book!  I just might want to read it to my daughter, as long as the word “berry” isn’t used in the place of “very,” and as long as there are no stiletto-wearing Barbie doll doctors.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Self-Censorship: Why I Might Throw Away But Never "Ban or Burn"

“The Nazis are about to start burning books!  I don’t know if I can go on!”

This was from my amazing ten-year old nephew, a book-loving brainiac, all around great guy and first-time reader of “The Book Thief.”

I recently saw an online photo of a monument in Germany aimed at reminding us of the time when many, many books were burned because they contained what the Nazi’s deemed “inappropriate.”  (I think that mostly meant anti-Nazi sentiment).

The thought of burning books is horrifying to me, to my soft-hearted nephew, and to so many others.  Why?  Books represent so much.  The collective learning and knowledge of millennia.  Alternate universes that can be visited briefly or over and over again throughout a lifetime.  Places that only exist in our minds but become part of us. 

Perspectives vastly different from your own.

Thoughts, statements or stories that you may find offensive and in complete opposition to your world view, political opinions, or sense of morality or taste.

That to me is why so often, various individuals or groups have wanted to remove certain books from libraries, bookstores, and homes.  Thankfully, I haven’t heard of many widespread book-burning parties since World War II, though I could be wrong.  I have, however, heard of many times when individuals or groups complained to libraries and schools, demanding that certain books be removed.

Many, many books out there are offensive to me.  Some offend me in a minor way.  This includes books that are poorly written but that are still on the shelves.  Yes, that’s offensive to me!  J  Something else has bothered me for a few years.  The Twilight novels seemed to set a new trend.  I call this the “obligatory love triangle.”  I’m disgusted by the sheer number of Young Adult books where the author sets up bizarre and frankly improbable situations in order to create such a scenario.   I actually met an author who was frustrated because her agent couldn’t sell her YA fantasy novel.  Why?  Publishers thought it was great but didn’t want it because there was no love triangle.  Really?  Come on!

There are also books that truly offend me on a deeper level.  This includes books that contain extreme violence and a lot of profanity.  It also includes extensive, detailed sexual content that doesn’t even need to be in the story, but is there for obvious reasons (think of the high volume of Harlequin “Romance” novels and other such drivel).  Violence against women.  Depictions of child molestation.  There’s a whole lot of this garbage out there, in books.  Again, as hard as it is to say it, I still defend the right of these authors to write this trash, and of libraries and stores to display and sell it.

I won’t read it.  When I come into contact with such a book, I’ll return it to the library unread, and if I happen to have bought the book, I’ll likely toss it out instead of passing it on to my kids, but I won’t demand that my library remove the book from its shelves.  I won’t complain to the school about the kinds of books they make available to my kids, either.  Why? Because I believe in the freedom of speech.  I believe in the freedom of the individual to speak or write anything he or she chooses.

I met an author a few years ago whose books are full of profanity and deal with, well, “sensitive” issues.  Schools have been pressured to remove his books from their libraries.  I personally can’t stand the way this guy writes.  I think he uses profanity as a crutch, and for shock value.  But if I believe in freedom of speech, I’ll defend his right to create such books.   I’ll defend the right of libraries and bookstores to display and sell his work. 

I believe in “self censorship.”  To me, that means that I choose which books I will read, and which books I will not read.  I don’t want anyone else to make that choice for me.  I don’t want to make that choice for another person, either.  When I come across something that offends, I will make the choice to close the book.  I hope to teach my children the same thing. 

So, if you are an author I don’t like, don’t worry.  I won’t start piling up your books and looking for the matches. 

I might badmouth you in my blog, however.  J



Monday, January 6, 2014

Real Women in Books, Please!

Not too long ago I had a revelation at a Medical Spa.  It wasn’t a happy one.

I wanted to know what to do about some mild acne scars on my face.  I sat across from the doctor who owns the place for a consultation.  Without even looking at my scars, he first asked:  “So when did you break your nose?”

I think my answer was something along the lines of:  “Uh, what??”

I hadn’t been aware that my nose had been broken up until that point, but he handed me a mirror, and sure enough, my nose is crooked.  It definitely leans to one side.  Oh.

Then, while I was still digesting that bit of information, he asked me this little zinger:  “So, did you have ‘Bell’s Palsy’ as a child?”


He then proceeded to show me how the right side of my face displays mild muscle weakness in comparison to the left side, making one eyebrow higher than the other, one eyelid slightly more droopy, and my lips puffier on one side.  In effect, my face is asymmetrical, or crooked. 

Holy cow!  Forget the stupid acne scars!  I’m a freak of nature!

I declined the recommended scar treatment:  a $500 laser session to burn off a few layers of skin.  I went home afraid to look in the mirror.

I was reminded of this experience as I got to thinking about how women’s looks are described by writers.  This isn’t a discussion of how much detail writers should include in their character descriptions.  Instead, I’m reflecting on something that’s always bugged me just a tad:  so many female literary heroines are gorgeous, beautiful, stunning, ethereal, amazing, attractive, or as we hear so often today, “hot.”  Their bodies are perfect according to current fashion, which lately seems to mean “tiny, skinny stick arms and big boobs.”  (Thanks to a friend for that quote.  It pretty much sums up today’s standard of beauty for me). 

 But what are real women like? 

We have scars.  We’re overweight or underweight.  We have grey hair.  Too many laugh lines.  Stretch marks.  Flat chests and flabby arms.  Too tall.  Too short.  Too young. Tool old.  Puffy eyes from lack of sleep.  Blotchy skin and frizzy hair.  We’re imperfect and…asymmetrical.  And yet, each woman is of great value to someone.  She’s a daughter, a mother, a sister, a friend, a neighbor, a coworker.  She’s your child’s beloved teacher, the pharmacist who remembers everyone’s name.  Your Mom.  When did a child ever care if Mom looked like a supermodel?  Why do female characters in books have to look that way?

I know that not every writer does this.  I’m also not suggesting that all writers should go out of their way to describe female protagonists in as unappealing a manner as possible.  I’m just asking for a little reality. 

I found a touch of that reality in a book I read a few years ago.  Sadly, I can’t remember the title, but I remember this.  The main character, a woman, took a moment for self reflection.  In essence, she thought this:  “So, I’m ten or more pounds overweight.  I’m shorter than average.  My eyebrows are way too thick.  So what?”

So what indeed!  J