Monthly Archives: February 2014

Sports books for reluctant teen readers

The other day I had the privilege of performing one of my favorite tasks as a librarian: an extensive reader’s advisory interview. The conversation started with a woman asking if we had a list of Reading Counts books. I explained that, since it is a pretty extensive list, we typically recommend that a student (or parent or teacher) choose a book and we will then check to see if it is on the list. When I asked if she had a certain title in mind, she told me that her son has to read something from the list for school, but he doesn’t like reading. I asked about her son’s interests and hobbies, and eventually settled on looking for sports books.

Winger. The first book I recommended, Winger (written by Andrew Smith and illustrate by Sam Bosma), is the story of a fourteen-year-old rugby player at a boarding school that is both hilarious and heartbreaking at intervals. The summary from the author’s website:

Ryan Dean West is a fourteen-year-old junior at a boarding school for rich kids. He’s living in Opportunity Hall, the dorm for troublemakers, and rooming with the biggest bully on the rugby team. And he’s madly in love with his best friend Annie, who thinks of him as a little boy.

With the help of his sense of humor, rugby buddies, and his penchant for doodling comics, Ryan Dean manages to survive life’s complications and even find some happiness along the way. But when the unthinkable happens, he has to figure out how to hold on to what’s important, even when it feels like everything has fallen apart.

Since it’s heavy on the humor and the graphics, I thought it would be a good choice for a reluctant reader. Of course, our copy was checked out, so I quickly looked for some alternatives.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.My second pick, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, isn’t something I would classify primarily as a sports novel, but there’s enough tension surrounding Junior’s decision to join the basketball team that I think it could be called a sports book. The summary from the Amazon:

Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he thought he was destined to live.

The narration is also light and humorous, even at some of the darker parts of the story, and it is on several YALSA book lists, including the Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults and Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults — two of my go-to’s for reluctant readers.

The Running Dream. I also suggested Wendelin Van Draanen’s The Running Dream as something with a more serious, reflective side. The summary from Amazon:

Jessica thinks her life is over when she loses a leg in a car accident. She’s not comforted by the news that she’ll be able to walk with the help of a prosthetic leg. Who cares about walking when you live to run?

As she struggles to cope with crutches and a first cyborg-like prosthetic, Jessica feels oddly both in the spotlight and invisible. People who don’t know what to say, act like she’s not there. Which she could handle better if she weren’t now keenly aware that she’d done the same thing herself to a girl with CP named Rosa. A girl who is going to tutor her through all the math she’s missed. A girl who sees right into the heart of her.

With the support of family, friends, a coach, and her track teammates, Jessica may actually be able to run again. But that’s not enough for her now. She doesn’t just want to cross finish lines herself—she wants to take Rosa with her.

I wasn’t as sure about this recommendation because I didn’t know whether a reluctant male reader would relate to a female amputee well enough to enjoy the book, but it got excellent reviews and won the 2012 Schneider Family Book Award.

A few hours later, I realized I hadn’t included any nonfiction titles in my recommendations. I don’t read as much nonfiction as I’d like, and I don’t remember coming across any reviews or buzz about sports-related YA nonfiction recently, but I’m sure there are great books out there. If you can think of any, please let me know in the comments!

The woman left with a few books and a relieved expression. I hope she comes back to let me know what her son thought of our choices!

I know this list is by no means exhaustive, so if you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments.


Writing descriptions for all of the senses


Photo by Flickr user Darkmuse. Those who have read Monsters will understand the reference.

Great writers have the ability to place us in the heart of their characters’ worlds, often with just a few words. We can see the blaze of day bleeding into night, hear the purr of the vintage car’s engine, feel the boiling heat of Mars’s core. But two powerful and often neglected senses are missing from many descriptions: smell and taste.

Studies have shown that our sense of smell is strongly connected to our memories. For me, the mix of sunscreen, salt, and cotton candy evokes memories of a Jersey shore amusement park that are so strong I can hear the roar of the roller coaster and the screams of its riders as they plunge down the first hill. A whiff of a friend’s hand lotion conjures an afternoon spent at her house years ago. If scent is so powerful, why do we forget it so often when writing?

Monsters. I’ve been pondering this while listening to Ilsa Bick’s Monsters (third in the Ashes trilogy), which makes excellent use of smell to conjure vivid settings and characters. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that one of the main characters develops a heightened sense of smell early in the series which Bick uses to effectively put us in Alex’s head, in her world, and (most importantly, since this is a thriller) in the moment. No other author has made me “picture” a character by his scent or foretold impending danger by a smell rather than a sound or sight so effectively. What really makes this work are the strong ties between smell, emotion, and memory. Of course, this is also backed up by vivid descriptions that evoke the other senses.

The Scorpio Races. I’ll admit, I haven’t yet read a book that used taste in a similar way, though I’m sure it’s out there. Titles I’d like to read that come to mind are Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and Joan Bauer’s Close to Famous, and I know there are several food-themed mystery series out there that I assume mention taste a fair amount. Aside from Monsters, the most recent book I’ve seen that stands out for using taste effectively was Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races. Though taste isn’t as prevalent in this book as smell is in Ashes, I thought the description of the November cakes was well written, and I could both smell and taste the salt of the island air throughout.

I’m going to make an active effort to include more descriptions using smell and taste in my writing. If you’re looking for great descriptions with smell, and can stomach a fair amount of gore, I highly recommend the Ashes trilogy. (And if you’re an audiophile like me, Katherine Kellgren is an excellent narrator.) What other books/authors have you seen make good use of these senses?

Reflections on library programming

Excited dog.

Photo by Flickr user edanley

When I first started working at my current place of employment, I tried to go for a healthy mix of fitting in with and challenging the conventions and practices in place there. Mostly I fit in, but I’d heard and read enough about new librarians bringing fresh perspectives that I felt it was my duty to examine the way things were done and, if the methods seemed strange or unnecessary or inefficient, ask if there was a better way to accomplish the same goals.

Most of my ideas were not so much changes as additions. The library was fairly light on adult programming when I started, and I sort of took it upon myself to become the programming librarian. I did this for a few reasons. First, I saw that there was more we could be doing with adult programs, and I knew I wanted to be the one to do it. Second, I loved coming up with new program ideas, and my managers seemed to like most of them. I loved (and still love) organizing everything; making promotions; writing press releases, blog posts and social media posts; and learning more about my new community by partnering with various speakers and authors to bring everything together. Finally, I was good at it. My managers liked my ideas, I was getting good attendance, and I’d carved a niche for myself in my new workplace. Whenever a phone call or email came in from someone who wanted to present, everyone knew to transfer or forward it to me.

Lately, the library has fallen into a programming rut. We’ve had exceptionally low attendance, and the device drop-in sessions that our digital services coordinator planned haven’t been popular, despite the fact that we get questions about tablets and eReaders pretty frequently at the reference desk. Part of it may be the weather — snow has closed the library four days this year, it was below zero for more than eight days in January (, and even when the weather wasn’t bad the roads often still were. (It still amazes me at how poorly this region handles snow, given the amount that we get. So many roads simply don’t get plowed.) But I’m sensing a trend, and I’d like to curb it.

I’ve graduated from the honeymoon stage of my time as the programming librarian. It’s not all new and easy and fun all the time. I’m working on bigger, more involved programs — a series of Appy Hours whose roll-out was as disappointing as that of (too soon?), the Adult Summer Reading Program, and (this is still in the development stage) a community read possibly culminating in an author visit. And as exciting as these big projects are, I worry that my co-workers and I may be the only ones who are excited about them.

So what’s the solution? We’ve tried handing out evaluation cards at programs, asking what people would like to see from programs. The response is always vague and unhelpful, if we get a response at all. We could post surveys or polls on our blog and social media pages, but I think those surveys will only reach a fraction of the community. And they’ll reach the fraction we’re already reaching, not the people we’re trying to reach.

Focus group.

Photo by Flickr user Scott Maxwell

After a six-hour college fair that saw three prospective students, my assistant manager and I had an impromptu brainstorming session. I threw out the idea of having a community focus group meet to discuss library programming and services. We would reach out to representatives from local schools, colleges, hospitals, restaurants, and churches; from the YMCA, the police, the local casino, the local gaming store, the local employment center, local banks, and the local government — just to name a few. We would ask all of them what they and the people they work with would like to see from the library — and how we can make it happen.

This is all still in its earliest planning stage, and we’d have to get the right community leaders on board, but I plan to take this idea to my manager and, if she likes it, the Programming Team. I think getting the community more actively involved in library programming could be more effective than just having a group of librarians try to figure out what will and won’t work.

What has your experience with programming and community feedback been?

Youth Media Awards

Being an avid reader and writer of YA fiction, I get really excited about the announcement of the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards. It’s actually a bigger deal to me than the Academy Awards, Emmys, Oscars, Grammys, and just about any other awards ceremony you can think of.

I love the awards not only because of the contagious anticipation felt by librarians across the country (#alayma was trending for a few hours on Twitter last Monday), but also because it alerts me to books and authors that may not have been on my radar. And, the awards give me great recommendations in multiple formats. Want an audiobook? Check out an Odyssey winner. Graphic novel? Try one of the Great Graphic Novels for Teens — the list includes both fiction and nonfiction titles. (Okay, a spot on the list isn’t an official award, but it’s still a nod of approval, and I trust it for reader’s advisory.)

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the awards, here’s the rundown on my favorites. These are just the ones given by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), but you can find the whole list of awards and their winners on ALA’s website.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods. Alex Awards

These go to the ten best adult books that will appeal to a teen audience. (Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, the amazing audiobook I just finished and highly recommend, won this in 2012. Apparently even the adult books I read are teen books in disguise.)

2014 Winners:

  • Brewster by Mark Slouka
  • The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell
  • Golden Boy: A Novel by Abigail Tarttelin
  • Help for the Haunted by John Searles
  • Lexicon: A Novel by Max Barry
  • Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu
  • Mother, Mother: A Novel by Koren Zailckas
  • Relish by Lucy Knisley
  • The Sea of Tranquility: A Novel by Katja Millay
  • The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

Edwards Award

This award honors an author for his or her “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature.” This year the Edwards went to Markus Zusak for The Book ThiefFighting Ruben WolfeGetting the Girl, and I Am the Messenger.

Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature

Midwinterblood. This is awarded to “the best book written for teens, based entirely on its literary merit, each year.” Popular past winners include John Green’s Looking for Alaska and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker. My biggest secret (well, not so secret anymore) ambition is to write a Printz winner.

The 2014 Printz Award went to Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick. 2014 Printz Honor books include Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell; Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal; Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner, illustrated by Julian Crouch; and Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool.

Nonfiction Award

The Nazi Hunters.This is a YALSA award rather than a Youth Media Award, but I thought I’d include it in this post. The award honors the best nonfiction book published for young adults during a November 1 to October 31 publishing year.

The 2014 Nonfiction Award went to The Nazi Hunters: How a Team of Spies and Survivors Captured the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb. Finalists include Chip Kidd’s Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design, Martin W. Sandler’s Imprisoned: The Betrayal of  Japanese Americans During World War II, Tanya Lee Stone’s Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles, America’s First Black Paratroopers, and James L. Swanson’s The President Has Been Shot! The Assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Odyssey Award

This award is given to the “best audiobook produced for children or young adults, available in English in the United States.” I like to boast that I was listening to last year’s Odyssey winner, “The Fault in Our Stars” (written by John Green, narrated by Kate Rudd, and produced by Brilliance Audio), as the award was being announced.

Scowler. The 2014 Odyssey winner is “Scowler,” written by Daniel Kraus, narrated by Kirby Heyborne, and produced by Listening Library. 2014 Honor Recordings include “Better Nate Than Ever,” written by Time Federle, narrated by Tim Federle, and produced by Simon and Schuster Audio; “Creepy Carrots!” written by Aaron Reynolds, narrated by James Naughton, and produced by Weston Woods Studios, Inc.; “Eleanor & Park,” written by Rainbow Rowell narrated by Rebecca Lowman and Sunil Malhotra, and produced by Listening Library; and “Matilda,” written by Roald Dahl, narrated by Kate Winslet, and produced by Penguin Audio.

William C. Morris YA Debut Award

This award “honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature.”

Charm & Strange. The 2014 Morris Award went to Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn. This year’s finalists include Sex & Violence by Carrie Mesrobian, Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, and In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters.

If you’re interested in earning some street cred or boasting about how many great YA books you’ve read/listened to (or you just want to talk teen books), YALSA hosts an annual Hub Reading Challenge for all lovers of YA lit — librarians, teachers, parents, teens, and anyone else who wants to participate! The rules are simple: between Monday, February 3 and Sunday, June 22, read or listen to at least 25 of the YA award winners in the format for which they won the award. Everyone who completes the challenge is entered into a random drawing to win a bunch of YA books.

Now that I’ve drooled over — er, admired — all these great YA books, I’m going to get back to Charm & Strange. As usual, every book I was on the waiting list for has magically come in at once. #Librarianproblems

Happy reading!