REVIEW: Don’t Fail Me Now, by Una LaMarche

So I told you guys that an incredibly generous sales rep at Penguin Random House sent me a bunch of ARCs of juvenile and teen lit to use in conjunction with the book clubs I’m starting. To help their promotion I’ll be reviewing the titles here, and so far it looks like it’ll be pretty easy because Don’t Fail Me Now, by Una LaMarche, was REALLY good.

Dont-Fail-Me-Now-Una-LaMarcheIt’s told in the first person present tense POV of Michelle Devereaux, a seventeen-year-old high school student with a mom that just got put in jail again (for drug use), two younger siblings she’s pretty much solely responsible for looking out for, and a dead-beat dad who left their family ten years ago. Michelle is a champion: she single-handedly protects Denny and Cass, her siblings, keeps them fed, safe, and in school, and does so while keeping up her own grades so that she can get somewhere better. Her mother is a druggie, in and out of prison, and the only other family they have is their Aunt Sam who tries to extort rent from Michelle to keep the kids out of the foster system.

The story really begins when a boy named Tim finds Michelle at work, tells her that his step-sister Leah is her half-sister (the half-sister their father left Michelle’s mom for, before leaving Leah as well) and that Buck (their father) reached out to them because he’s dying and has a family heirloom for the girls. Michelle sees this as the potential “Hail Mary” they need for some extra cash, and immediately launches a family road trip (Leah and Tim in tow) to find Buck in his hospice in California. What follows is a road trip fraught with tension: ducking Child Protective Services and the cops, foraging for supplies, tension between our protagonists, and ultimately, the forging of a new kind of family that defies definition but is stronger than what could be called “normal.”

LaMarche’s story is rough and full of heartache, and it should be. It was pretty much the ultimate in “check your privilege” literature; every time I caught myself thinking that the struggles Michelle and her siblings faced were exaggerated or unrealistic, I had to pause and remember that people do deal with these kind of issues. LaMarche creates a harsh and starkly realistic world for these children, but cushions it with an ultimately hopeful ending for the Devereaux family – an ending I needed after all the heartache I went through with these kids.

If it has a weakness it is that the ending wraps up a little TOO neatly – I felt like there were emotional jumps that happen way too quickly, and certain emotional plots get tied up too perfectly given the timeline of the novel. However, as I said, after the struggles the characters go through during the novel, I find it hard to begrudge them their tentatively happy ending.

This is a great book to discuss themes like family, race, racial privilege, classism, bullying…there’s a lot to mine here (I’m discussing it with a teen book club in a few weeks so I read it with potential discussion in mind). It’s also a great way to talk to teens about what they see in their own futures. I definitely recommend it.

Little Black Book Club

I had my first “meeting” for the Little Black Book Club, and it was…well, people came?  Two people. But they came! And I’m still excited about this, and feel like it will gain traction, and I’ll tell you why.

One of my coworkers also works at a book store, and passed along the info for my book club to their sales rep from Penguin Random House. The response from PRH was FANTASTIC – after filling her in on my goals and target age group, they sent me  box of ARCs for some of their upcoming YA titles for my teens to check out. She just asked that we pass along some reviews after we read and discuss them.

Not only does this appeal to my love of free things, but I’m SO PLEASED to be able to offer the books to our teens that they can read without needing a library card. There are multiple reasons a teen of ours would not be able to utilize their card (too large a fine, a family block, losing it, etc.) and getting past that stumbling block is such a big thing that I’m happy I can offer.

I’m hoping word of mouth will spread about this – like I said, I only had two teens come check it out, but hopefully once word catches on that the books are free and they’re some of the first people in the world to read them, I’ll have more interest.

It was kind of cool that, because I only had two, they could both take both of the books I had earmarked for this meeting – I paired up the books PRH sent me thematically, in case I didn’t have enough of a single title to go around; this way we could discuss similarities/differences, tone, etc. This way we can still do that, but everyone will have the same information, and I’ll be able to read along with them.

It’s been a while since we’ve been able to sustain an audience for teen book clubs – I’m hoping this is the boost we need to start back up again.

The titles we’re reading for next month are:

Don’t Fail Me Now by Una LaMarche
Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton

Graphic Novel Collection Development for Teens

I had a couple of teens tell me how great our graphic novel collection is yesterday, which is pretty much the best compliment I can receive from them – I’ve been in charge of Youth and YA Graphic Novel collection development for about a year now, and it’s one of my favorite parts of my job.  Since graphic novel selection can be intimidating, I thought I’d put together some thoughts about how I approach it, that you might find helpful.

Picking what to put on the shelf can be tricky.  For a long time, when I would browse the graphic novel collection at my home library, I noticed that instead of separating YA graphic novels from the adult collection, they would all be on the same shelf – which is one way to do it, but not the best way to get them into the hands of teens, especially when you’ve got Youth and Adult Services on different floors.  Deciding what actually qualifies a graphic novel as being YA instead of Adult can be a tough call, but like YA Fiction, you get better at identifying what’s going to be a good selection with practice.

The most important thing to remember is that at the end of the day, you should be buying books you legitimately think your teens will want to read.  Like any other area of collection development, it’s not about what YOU want to read – it’s about them!  Listen to your teens when they make requests, and pay attention to what else they’re reading, watching, and playing.  Has the new Tomb Raider game been as popular in your library as mine?  Did you know that Dark Horse is publishing an ongoing Tomb Raider comic?  And if they enjoy that, Cory Doctorow has an excellent new release called In Real LIfe that I can recommend, after which you should probably start the World Trigger series…

All that, of course, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push their boundaries or make selections that might be outside of their immediate interests.  That’s ALSO our job – not just to find the stuff they KNOW they want to read, but also to find the stuff WE know they’ll want to read, as soon as they know about it.  Like my Tomb Raider example above, this works pretty much like readers advisory for any other genre or format.

Remember, there’s more to the comic world than DC or Marvel (which is not to say that both publishers aren’t doing great things; they TOTALLY are, remind me to tell you how much I love Ms. MarvelUnbeatable Squirrel Girl, and Gotham Academy/Gotham by Midnight).  Look into Boom!Studios, Archaia, IDW, and First Second, among others.  Boom!Studios especially is doing some great stuff for younger audiences (including the Adventure Time comic series and Lumberjanes, one of my personal favorites).

Here are some of my favorite picks that have also been really popular with my teens:

– DC’s Batgirl (we started with the New 52 run, written by Gail Simone, but I’m very excited for when we start getting Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr’s Batgirl of Burnside run)

– Attack on Titan series by Hajime Isayama

– The Scott Pilgrim books by Bryan Lee O’Malley

– Runaways by Brian K. Vaughn

– Morning Glories by Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma

– In Real Life by Cory Doctorow

– Strobe Edge by Io Sakisaka

– Hoax Hunters by Michael Moreci and Steve Seeley

– Fairy Tail by Hiro Mashima

– Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks

Terry Pratchett

So, I had a post all queued up and ready to publish about my approach to young adult graphic novel collection development.  I’m proud of that post, and it’ll go up later next week, but it’s no longer time for that, because Terry Pratchett died today.

When I was fourteen I had an ill-advised and short relationship with a senior in my high school sci-fi/fantasy club that was mostly based on him teaching me (badly) how to play Magic: the Gathering and holding hands at the movie theater.  Luckily, it didn’t last very long and didn’t leave me with any emotional scarring.  What it DID leave me with, as he was the first person to introduce me to the books, was a world-altering appreciation for the words of Terry Pratchett.

The ex-boyfriend insisted that I read them “in order,” which lasted about as long as it took me to read The Color of MagicThe Light Fantastic, and Mort – at which point I immediately needed to read every book that Death made an appearance in.  I picked up Feet of Clay because I liked the cover, and knew instantly that Commander Samuel Vimes was going to be a cornerstone character to me for the rest of my life (ditto Granny Ogg, and Tiffany Aching after I read The Wee Free Men for a class on YA literature).

It is impossible for me to quantify the impact that Terry Pratchett’s work has had on my life.  What he did with language, with humor, with story and characters has informed everything I’ve written for the last nearly-fourteen years of my life.  His collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, is the apocalypse story I compare all other four horsemen stories to, now and for the rest of time.  Sam Vimes, with his implacable sense of duty, caustic sense of humor, and steely steadfastness and pragmatism is who I aspire to be; Tiffany, delighting in her self-discovery, learning to fix the mistakes she makes, and never being embarrassed or ashamed by her missteps or progress is who I am now (after a lot of personal work, during which I was mostly Mort – well-intentioned but short-sighted and fumbling).

Pratchett had a singular way of writing characters that demonstrated a vast knowledge of human nature, and all of its myriad variations.  Even the people (and dwarfs, and trolls, and werewolves, and orangutans, and psychopomps) we were supposed to root for could be mean, weak, cowardly, self-destructive, or a million other negative things – but we loved them anyway,  because they were real.  We loved Esme Weatherwax when she couldn’t get out of her own head, and we loved Rincewind when he was running as fast as he could to save his own skin, and we loved Death when he was being coldly rational; we could love them because in addition to all those things, they were fiercely loyal, viciously funny, members of a team and protectors of a magical world.

I will never be able to adequately express the way these books moved into my brain and changed my life.  While books never die, and I will be able to revisit Carrot and Angua, the Lancre witches and the Librarian, the Patrician and his guild leaders and the wide, filthy, wonderful, horrifying cityscape of Ankh-Morpork whenever I want, I regret that there will never be new adventures for me to explore. I am saddened by the loss of possibility and the loss of magic that we face today.

I never met Terry Pratchett, so I can’t speak to his character and I won’t try.  Instead, I’ll leave you with my thoughts, and link you to these retrospectives by people who did know him and can memorialize him personally in a way that I can’t.

I hope Death greeted you fondly, Sir Pratchett.

Terry Pratchett: Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. LeGuin lead tributes (The Guardian)

Neil Gaiman’s blog entry, with a link to the last words he wrote about Pratchett

Terry Pratchett Dies: Twitter Pays Tribute (The Telegraph)

Kid-Friendly Comic Books

You may remember my lament over the death of a truly excellent new comic that I posted here some time ago (A PSA About Comics).  Well, since then I’ve been spending a lot more money at my local comic shop on monthly issues and trades – and enjoying the heck out of following books from month to month.  There’s a slew of excellent titles on the shelf right now, so I thought I’d share some of my favorites that I’m reading right now.  In this post I’ll be talking about titles that are 100% kid-friendly (some of which I’ve already pre-ordered for my J Graphic Novel collection!).

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Abigail and the Snowman by Roger Langridge, published by Boom!Studios

Abigail and the Snowman is a charming short-run comic (it’s at 3 out of 4 issues, with the fourth one due out this month) about Abigail, a young girl who lives with her dad, and the relationship she develops with Claude, a yeti on the run from a secret government organization.  It’s a book that deals with issues real kids face – Abigail and her father struggle with money, Abigail struggles with making friends because they move so often, etc. – but couched in a sweet, fantastical story as Abigail helps Claude find his real home.  Recommended for ages 6-8, but really, everyone’s going to enjoy this one.

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Feathers by Jorge Corona, published by Archaia

Feathers is a steampunky adventure that’s also a short-run (six issues, two of which are currently available) about a young boy named Poe who runs around at night with goggles on and is covered in feathers.  In contrast to Poe is Bianca, a wealthy girl from the privileged part of the city, who runs into Poe while running away from her controlling family.  So far, Feathers is a fun Victorian romp with a message about classism and judging books by their covers, but it has the promise of developing into a bigger fantasy story full of prophecy and adventure.  Ages 8-10, and anyone who enjoys a good steam engine in their fiction.

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Gotham Academy by Becky Cloonan, Brendan Fletcher, and Karl Kerschl, published by DC

I’m really excited to see DC exploring the city of Gotham outside of Batfamily stories (for adult readers who are also horror fans, I can’t recommend Gotham by Midnight highly enough), and also developing stories inside Gotham that are accessible to younger readers (the new Batgirl of Burnside is another example of this).  While Gotham Academy doesn’t escape the shadow of the Bat completely, it doesn’t need to – nor should it.  Rather, it shows us what goes on in a different environment that’s still effected by the hero and villain mythology Gotham encourages.  Olive Silverlock, Maps Mizoguchi, and their supporting cast of characters are students at Gotham Academy, a prestigious prep school – while the boarding school setup could invite a lot of cliches and tired tropes, GA embraces them and moves on, developing its characters past their archetypes and giving its heroine, Olive, a remarkable amount of room for her own development past “self-exiled loner.”  Lots of great female characters and a wonderfully diverse cast make this book a great tween read.

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Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, and Carolyn Nowak, published by Boom!Studios

I don’t know that it’s possible for me to say enough good things about Lumberjanes.  Set in a girl scout-type camp, where the campers hunt supernatural creatures, solve ancient prophecies, and eventually save the world from tricky mythological figures, Lumberjanes still finds room to show you the amazing friendships between the core cast of five, their fellow campers, the camp counselors, and so on.  This truly is a book that trumpets “Friendship to the Max!” while celebrating hardcore ladytypes of all creeds and ages.  Personally, my favorite scene is when Ripley, the spritely and energetic clown of the group, ends up riding a velociraptor into camp – a velociraptor she eventually befriends and shares a tearful goodbye with. Recommended for all ages.

A PSA About Comics

I’m going to take a moment to talk about something not totally library related, but is still a subject near to my heart and one that I feel is important to share.  Recently, The Movement, a comic written by Gail Simone and published by DC, released its twelfth issue.  It was also the last issue, as The Movement was cancelled in February of this year.

You may not have heard of it, but The Movement was a great book.  It took place in the DC universe (it was released as part of the New 52), but it was set in the new location of Coral City rather than Metropolis or Gotham.  It only had the slightest of character connections to more well-known and better established heroes (Batgirl makes a guest appearance in issue 10).  But while it was being printed, it was one of my favorite books, and I will never stop feeling guilty about its cancellation.

Why?  Because I didn’t buy it while it was being released.

I love comics, but I’ve never been a person with a pull list. I have always preferred to wait for the trade collections, because they are sturdier, easier to re-read, and are meatier by design.  They’re also a cheaper deal and have no advertising.  So when I picked up the first couple of issues of The Movement, read it, and loved it, I decided I’d definitely be buying the trade.  I avoided spoilers and looked forward to it being added to my semi-annual collection of trades (this is how I read Batgirl, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman).

Comics get cancelled because people don’t buy them.  When I heard through Gail Simone’s twitter feed that The Movement would end after 12 issues, because the sales numbers just weren’t there, I wondered how many people like me there were – content to wait it out until the trade release.  This was a killer reminder that the sales numbers won’t, can’t wait for the trade releases.  Publishers need to know their books can make money month to month, and maybe if I’d been buying The Movement all along, it might have survived.

I know I can’t keep a book afloat all by myself.  But I also know there are other people like me, who choose to consume their comics in trade format rather than monthly issues.  That habit has always seemed like a valid choice for me, and it still is – but now I understand better what happens when you aren’t seen to be supporting the books you love from month to month.

For the first time in my life I have a pull list.  I’ll always be sad that The Movement ended before its time, because of how amazing it was in the comics landscape – a team book where the prominent members were LGBTQ, one was physically disabled, with multiple people of color and women in prominent roles.  It was a book that should have had my monthly support, and I’m sorry that it didn’t.  I won’t be making that mistake again.

Think about the comics you want to read, and the ones you want to see more of.  Pick a couple of books and buy them every month.  Show the publishers what you consider worthy of support.  Be part of their success.  Because otherwise they may not be around to experience in the future.

If you’re curious, my current pull list is:

Lumberjanes, by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis
Windblade, by Mairghread Scott
Pretty Deadly, by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios
Ms. Marvel, by G. Willow Wilson
Tomb Raider, by Gail Simone
Rat Queens, by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch

Exciting Things!

I AM GOING TO FANGIRL EXCITEDLY FOR A BIT BECAUSE SOMETHING HAS HAPPENED AT WORK THAT IS THE MOST EXCITING THING.

So my supervisor told me I was doing such a great job with my non-fiction section that she turned over the YA graphic novel section to my control which is basically all I have ever wanted in life.  The section hasn’t really been taken care of for a WHILE, and it shows – many, many of the books need to be replaced simply because they’ve been read over and over and over again.  We also have a bunch of single and random volumes from series that we received in donations, that are never checked out because of lack of interest of lack of availability for the rest of the series.

My first step is, like before, to do some serious weeding.  Manga and graphic novels go in and out of style pretty regularly; the first thing I’ve been doing is checking some of our older series to see if people are still reading them (series weeded due to this: Negima!, Oh My Goddess, No Need for Tenchi, Inu Yasha).  The second thing is finding the series that ARE being read, but that need holes filled in (Rebirth, Crescent Moon, Alice in the Country of Hearts).  Third, I’ve been ordering replacements for series that are so well read we have books just falling apart (Naruto, Bleach, Death Note).

I’m still working through those things.  But what I am also doing is identifying huge holes in our collection – the most egregious being, I think, the lack of traditional superhero titles.  The last person who was in charge of the GN section was a manga guy, which is fine – but it means we don’t currently have ANY New 52 titles, and our Marvel collection is pretty much limited to some Spider-Man, Thor and Iron Man.

WHICH BRINGS ME TO THE MOST EXCITING PART OF ALL OF THIS.  My boss gave me the go-ahead to set up a meeting with our local comic shop, so we can create a pull list for some trade paperback titles.  I get pretty much full autonomy in what we order, as long as I don’t go over budget (which is not a problem, it’s a big budget).  I’ve already got some titles in mind that I know I want to add (Batgirl, Swamp Thing, Uncanny X-Men, Hawkeye, Unwritten) and I’m looking forward to hearing what the guy at the store has to add based on what he sees teens buying.

Basically I am super excited that my boss trusts me this much.  What titles do you stock in your graphic novels?  What do you consider quintessential to your collection?