In Which I Feel Something Needs to be Avenged

I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what books to add to our library’s collection. There’s quite a bit to consider, actually. Informational texts that support the curriculum and standards. Replacing outdated stuff and filling in holes. Fulfilling student and staff requests. Getting the latest installments in popular series. Award-winners, notable books, things the kids really ought to read but probably won’t, things the kids are dying to read but arguably aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

This involves reading: publications like School Library Journal, review websites, publishers’ catalogs, authors’ social media outlets, even stuff like Entertainment Weekly. It involves chatting with teachers, kids, parents, fellow librarians, and other members of the Tribe of Avid YA Readers to find out what they and their kids/friends are loving.

But the best way to find good new stuff, as far as I can tell, is to actually get into the trenches and spend a few quality hours in a bookstore. This is especially true of books that are going to fit into my “guilty pleasure” category: books that will fly off the shelves, that aren’t going to win any awards or teach any Valuable Life Skills, but that will be falling apart from the sheer force of frequent circulation by the end of the year. It’s your Minecraft novelizations, your Ever After High, your Adventure Time graphic novels and variations on the “1,000 gross things you didn’t know about _______” theme. They’re not going to show up on any of the websites or magazines, but they’re must-have items in a middle school library.

Today, while on a quest for junior adaptations of high-difficulty classic novels, I took a break to browse the new middle-grade fiction and found something that immediately caught my eye. Before I even opened the front cover, I knew it had to go on my wish list. Behold:

hulk

 

It was a perfect cream puff. Very popular movie/comic book tie-in. Library-bound so it’s durable and easy to process. Just under 200 pages, in a friendly font that would make it accessible for all but our weakest readers. Marketed for third through seventh grades, ages 8-12. Right around $10, not counting my educational discount. Perfect, perfect, perfect.

Ah, I thought. Where there’s Hulk, there might be….

Sure enough, a little ways down I found Hulk’s not-quite-as-puny-god friend:

thor

Excited, I wrote down both ISBNs for future purchase consideration and returned to my intended business. About an hour later, parsing the differences between illustrated adaptations of Great Expectations began to get to me, so I took another walk. And I found the other half of the series:

iron man

 

and

9780316383523

Dear reader, I am incensed.

Let me show you something else. I just Google Image Searched “Avengers t-shirt kids.” Here’s a screen shot of the top page of results. Click it to see it a little bigger and see if you don’t see what I don’t see.

ss

Let’s make it a little more obvious, shall we?

 

Here, what about toys?

Hmm. Funny, but I seem to remember that there was a woman in the Avenger movies. Well, more than one, obviously — Pepper Potts, Peggy Carter, and Maria Hill are all important elements of the films as well — but there’s an actual member of the Avenger team who happens to be female and who also conveniently vanishes when it’s time to print a t-shirt (or, apparently, write a junior novelization).

I’m not the only person to notice this trend. Take a peek at …But Not Black Widow, which points out that Guardians of the Galaxy merchandise is also conspicuously missing one green-hued heroine. The Geekquality blog, with its byline that “all geeks are created equal,” saw it at Target. Mommyish found the gaping absence running rampant throughout the wide world of Disney paraphernalia. There are lots of websites, lots of blogs, wondering the same thing I’m wondering, but what you really need to read is this article from Business Insider. It’s talking specifically about Gamora but I guess it answers the mystery of the missing Black Widow, too. For those of you who don’t have the time to read the article, I’ll grab the important bit:

tcp

Ah, I see. Superhero stuff is for boys, and it would make their little boy parts shrivel up and fall off if they wore a shirt with a female superhero on it or had a female superhero among their action figures.

Come on, guys. We’re officially firmly in the land of Joss Whedon here. Surely we can do better than this?

(I’m not even going to get into the whole “sexist girl’s Avengers shirt” thing. It’s similarly fantastic.)

I’m sorry, but Black Widow kicks ass, and it’s not only girls who think so. She’s a fascinating character with her uncertain alliances, believable vulnerabilities, and refusal to fall into the obvious romantic story lines. She’s witty, assertive, and possesses more common sense at times than the rest of the crew put together. I want to know more about her. I want to read her library-bound middle-grade origin story. I want to wear a shirt with Black Widow on it, and not in some ridiculous “check out my butt” pose.  (Iron Man and the other guys — hey, I’m permitted my biases — kick ass too. I’d also like to read their origin stories. And I do wear shirts with them on them.)

In the defense of author Alex Irvine and his publisher, he does say that these are the “first four” in the series. But why are they separated off like this? Why not release the whole gang at once? Why put Black Widow on the B-side?  And frankly, he hasn’t said yet what, if any, the subsequent books will be. I’m not going to be even a little surprised if Loki and Nick Fury get books before Natasha. Or maybe BW doesn’t even get her own book — maybe this “ensemble cast” book, scheduled to come out in March, is all she gets.

I just don’t get it. I don’t believe that boys really won’t want something that includes the whole team. And frankly, if that is the case, isn’t that something we should be pushing back against instead of enabling? I bet you that if their only choice was “Avengers shirt including Black Widow” (or “Guardians shirt including Gamora”) or no Avengers shirt at all, that they wouldn’t hesitate. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the “boys don’t want girls on their shirts” thing is an invention of adults who grew up in a different era.

I’ve got over a thousand kids who use my library, about half of whom are boys. I’ve got a lot of kids of both genders who love Marvel superheroes. I know a cream puff when I see it; these Avengers books are going to be wildly popular. And when — if — a Black Widow title is released, it’s going to be just as popular. Why? Because my kids recognize and respect fun characters who kick ass and would probably have all kinds of choice words to say if I suggested that they couldn’t read about a female superhero just because she’s a girl.

Reading Update 28

SGF Reading

Reading Update: Today is Thursday, July 17. As of today, I have read 69 books toward my goal of 100; two of them have been since the last update. The two books I’ve read so far are:

books28

Siege and Storm is the sequel to Shadow and Bone. I like this series, although it falls in kind of a strange zone for me. For the most part, it seems to be middle school level — but then there’s this undercurrent of darkness and sexuality that makes it more YA. I mean, there’s nothing happening or anything, but there’s this sort of sense that it will, y’know? Anyway, it’s a pretty great dark fantasy sort of thing, with interesting characters (albeit somewhat thinly written).

Dangerous is the latest by Shannon Hale, and it’s science fiction! It’s a superhero story, an alien story, a love story, and an adventure story. It reminded me of both The Fantastic Four and Ender’s Game. I liked the characters, especially the strong female protagonist, and I liked how it wasn’t nice and neat and whitewashed. I didn’t like the way that huge spans of time were wiped away in a single sentence, but I guess that comes from trying to edit a book down to a length and pace appropriate for young readers. It wasn’t the greatest book I’ve ever read, but I’m hoping for a sequel.

Currently Reading/Looking Ahead: I need to find a good read to review for GLW. I put Ready Player One in my bag this morning but am not enthused.

Reading Update #27?

SGF Reading

Reading Update: Today is Thursday, July 10. It is hard to remember to blog during summer break, especially when I am prepping for and teaching summer school, and also doing a bundle of other things… oops. But here I am. As of today, I’ve read 67 books toward my goal of 100 for 2014.

Since last time, I’ve read the following eight books:

books27

Not so very much to say about Corduroy and Pooh Loves unless you’re reading to a toddler…

The Assassin’s Blade is a collection of prequel novellas in the Throne of Glass series. I was expecting them to be dreadful, but they were pretty good, and made me all the more eager for the next book to get published.

Graceling is one of those books that had been recommended to me several times by various friends. It focuses on a young woman who has the Grace (think Xanthian Talent, or superpower) of near invincibility. She’s a powerful fighter and nothing seems able to hurt her. In rapid succession she rebels against her king, rejects her suitor, chops off her hair, falls in love, and runs off on an adventure. It was interesting enough that I read it very quickly, and would like to read the other two books in the series so far, but I don’t really see what all the fuss is about. It felt thin, and I feel like other books have done the same basic story better.

Shadow and Bone is the first in yet another YA fantasy trilogy, this one taking place in a fantastical Russia-ish land. Its protagonist is a orphaned girl conscripted into her country’s military, who discovers an unrealized magical power when she and her beloved friend are attacked. From there she is swept up into a world of glamour and intrigue — and betrayal. I thought this was really well done; I actually cared about the characters, even though they were written in simpler strokes for younger readers. For the first 3/4 of the book I felt it was a pretty great middle grade fantasy in the Narnia vein; later, some more adult situations complicate things, and the very end of the book felt quite rushed and thrown together. Altogether, I quite enjoyed this one and am anxious to read the next book.

The Daughter of Smoke and Bone series was recommended to me by J, and I’d heard a lot of positive chatter from other sources. Here is a place where the hype was right! SUCH a good story. Karou is an eccentric art student in Prague, but of course this is one of those classic “quirky character is more than s/he appears to be and is in fact a messiah figure” tales. The character writing is fantastic, and the complicated moral ground and romantic subplot make this sophisticated enough for adults.

Currently Reading/Looking Ahead: I picked up The Season last night but I’m not impressed. May go by my library this afternoon and pick up Siege and Storm. As long as I’m catching up with my MG/YA collection I probably ought to pick up some realistic fiction, but I’m just not in the mood right now.

Review: Zombie Baseball Beatdown

Zombie-Baseball-Beatdown-by-Paolo-BacigalupiThis review originally posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Recently, I ordered several books for our school library, including this much-hyped middle grade novel about immigration reform. I mean, about conditions in the meat processing industry. No! It’s about corruption in the legal system based on the evils of money. Ack! What I am trying to say is, a novel about ZOMBIES. Yeah, that’s right! It’s about zombies, and baseball. Or so I am reminded, when I look at the cover….

Okay, I should be fair. This was actually a pretty darn good book for what it is, and even though I’m about to point out its weaknesses, it overall gets a thumbs-up from me. Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi is a grody, funny adventure story of the classic “groups of kids running around with curiously little parental supervision” sub-genre. It’s a buddy story, written in an accessible style, with plenty of the stuff that middle school boys like: slapstick, comic books, sports, video games, cars, oblivious adults, crazy heroics, poop. You know: the good stuff. I found myself smiling, compulsively turning pages, reading choice bits aloud, and rooting for the good guys. It was a fun read.

On the other hand, Zombie Baseball Beatdown is also a not-at-all veiled polemic against racism, the meat industry, American immigration policy, and big business. As my husband, who is an expert in such things, reminds me, zombies are always political metaphors. And of course, subtlety isn’t really in order when you’re writing middle grade literature. That said, ZBB really lays it on thick. My personal politics weren’t offended by the book, but it didn’t take much imagination to realize that plenty of readers would be completely turned off by the story’s message and end up walking away from what was otherwise a fun story. Obviously the use of fiction to promulgate ideology is nothing new (hello, pretty much everything you ever had to read for a high school English class) but a lighter hand with the vituperation might not have been uncalled-for here.

As an adult reader of a kid’s book, I was uncomfortable with the violent ideation. It bothered me that almost all of the protagonists’ (adult) nemeses conveniently got zombified, providing the kids with ample excuse to beat them up with baseball bats. I mean, I’m not so far gone that I can’t see how this would appeal to a middle schooler’s sense of justice; heck, some of these adults were so rotten before become zombies that I wanted to smack them myself. But there are a few violent (for a middle grade novel) moments where the kids get to deliver what ought to have been fatal beatings to adults in their lives, and they left me feeling a little disturbed. The inevitable zombie apocalypse scene blithely glosses over the fact that the kids are bludgeoning their erstwhile parents and neighbors.

Looking back on the novel, I realize that there are really no positive adults in this book, and ZBB fails the Bechdel Test big time. I’m not really counting that as a flaw here; it’s clearly a book intended for young guys, and the characters are pretty awesome. Our main character is a smart (but not caricature-smart) Indian-American boy who isn’t much of a baseball player but has a good head for stats. One of his friends is a courageous, big-hearted Mexican-American boy from a family of illegal immigrants, and the other is a Martin Riggs type with a rough home life. Together, the trio face enemies small, large, bovine, and undead. The ending is deliberately untidy, in such a way that felt exactly right to me and will frustrate the heck out of its target demographic.

Ultimately, this is a book that I’ll still sincerely recommend to kids who will either gloss over the politics or not mind them, and it’ll have a prominent place in our Halloween book display next October. It may make Cory Doctorow’s YA lit look subtle in comparison, but Zombie Baseball Beatdown is also a zombie-infested revenge fantasy filled with lots of cow poop — what’s not to love?