If you've been reading along, you'll know I’ve been really interested in literature’s ability to help people to change, and the literature that I always felt changed me most was what I read when I was young. I remember so often putting down a book and thinking that I’d just been changed forever. I love YA lit. I fell in love with it again last winter.
Last winter was a tough one. I used to use public transportation like a Super Mario tube to avoid bad weather, and pop in and out between work, the gym, the library, the coffee shop, home. But last winter, I had a baby with me all the time, and suddenly, my old routines wouldn’t cut it. It was too snowy at the park. It was too cold to go for walks. My little guy was too big to just stick around inside all day. I was saved by my library.
My son and I joined a family reading time circle. Two mornings a week, we’d sit on a blanket in the middle of the library floor, with other parents and caretakers and babies all around us. We always got there early; I’d talk to the other grown-ups, and my little guy and the other babies learned to crawl and scoot from lap to lap. The snow fell on the skylights. The older kids pulled books from the stacks. Then the librarians read to us and we all sang songs and bounced babies together. These are some of my favourite memories now.
Cameron Ray was often the reader. He’s a wonderful reader – he’s incredibly entertaining and animated, and now my son’s earliest memories of books are of both of us loving being read to. Cameron is also a phenomenal human being. He was one of the first friends I met in my post-baby life. (I also met another wonderful parent there, Kerry Clare, whose new book is already one of my all-time favourites (and it’s coming out soon). As we waited for the reading time to start, he and I and other parents and caretakers talked, about real things, like books and movies, and not just sleep and diapers. We often talked about young adult fiction, and I don’t know anyone who knows more about the genre than he does.
Here is our interview.
Please describe yourself and your work.
Born and raised on a farm, but not a huge fan of rural life. Survived by reading loads and loads of books and it just made sense for me to become a librarian. My work I specialize in teens, getting boys to read and myriad other library related things such as: collection development, social media, the young voices conference and too many other things to list.
Why is it important to help young people to develop reading habits?
Tough question. It is important for so many different reasons. Literacy is one of the most important skills one can have. There is a direct correlation between literacy and quality of life, so developing reading habits is nothing but a good thing. However, we live in this world where instant gratification is actually almost a tangible thing and books are not as instantly gratifying as the more visual means of entertainment (tv, movies, video games, etc) but they expand your mind and help to keep brain development healthy. Also there is just something about books that is so captivating to those who endure as you create the world in your head that the author has developed. I also think that reading creates empathy and an understanding of the complexities of the world around us. Also books enable and offer a unique user experience as it is a solo activity that creates a social world in our heads.
I love young adult fiction, and I suspect that you do too. Can you explain why you love it?
I am not actually sure I can explain it as well as I would like to, but I will endeavor to do so. As a teen I mainly read books written for adults as during that time publishers would rarely take risks on books for teens. Now that has changed and we see so many great books for teens, books that respect the teen and emulate how varied and complicated the life of teens can be. At the age of 21 I rediscovered the books of Daniel Pinkwater and reading those books turned me onto reading more books for young adults or teens. By reading those books I really began to process my own personal history and my life as a teen and things began to heal and my world began to change. Young adult fiction is this marvelous "place" where so many allegories or metaphors can take place to help the reader better understand themselves or get catharsis. I think that young adult books today are actually keeping in tune with the traditions of great literature much more than adult books as there is so much more room for creativity and it is still a growing and developing genre. When I look at popular adult books I find them to be so repetitive and lacking in any creative spark. For me novels written for teens are a lot like the life of being a teen as they capture so many "first" moments and the impact these moments have on us or have had on us.
What were your favorite books when you were a young adult and why?
A Jest of God - Margaret Laurence: I first read this when I was 16 and it really blew me away. I found the character of Rachel to be difficult but at the same time relate-able. The theme of wanting to belong but never fitting in really resonated with me. I read this book once a year in July and I use it as a barometer of how my life has changed since last reading it.
Lady Oracle - Margaret Atwood: a book about having once being fat but still feeling the impact of a negative body image. This I also read at 16 and I found it a difficult text but also really was so drawn into the world of this girl who had accidentally created a double life that she desperately wants out of both lives.
The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death- Daniel Pinkwater: This is still one of my all time favorite books, I even have a tattoo of the cover are of the first paperback edition. A book about a gang of misfits who have to help one of their friends find out who has kidnapped her uncle. I had never read anything like this when I discovered it. I devoured this book and I return to it frequently as it is such an amazing and tongue in cheek novel.
Bridge to Terabithia- Kathryn Patterson: Stunning book that still moves me so much. Was the first time I had read a book where I felt I could relate to the lead male character. The rural setting also had a big impact on me as most of the books I had read were always set in cities or urban areas. Although the ending is tragic I never think of the book as being sad, but always uplifting.
Boys Like Us- Peter McGehee: The first book about gay men that I read that made me realize that the stereotypes are total nonsense. The story of Zero and his friends in the village in Toronto is so real and bittersweet. The book also angered me in terms of how the HIV positive people in the book were treated by outside characters. This book really helped me to define what family is all about and how your chosen family can heal the damage your blood relatives have caused.
Which YA books would you recommend to adults reading this blog?
Dorothy must Die - Danielle Paige (awesome revisit to Oz where Dorothy has become a mean girl).
Suicide Notes - Michael Thomas Ford (beautiful novel about a boy who has tried to commit suicide and his time in the hospital).
Every Day - David Levithan (part sci fi, part existentialism, a novel about a person who spends 24 hours inhabiting someone else's body and then moves onto another).
Unspeakable -Caroline Pignant (historical fiction about a young woman who survives the sinking of the Empress of Ireland and the secrets that she hides).
I Hunt Killers - Barry Lyga (allegorical novel about a young man getting in touch with his feelings. And his Dad was a serial killer).
Reformed Vampire Support Group - Catherine Jinks (partially a satire of "Twilight" but also a really great read about the vampire support subculture).
My Friend Dahmer- Derf Backderf (graphic novel about a teen who was friends with Dahmer in high school and how he was crying out for help, but no one did anything).
What kind of work does the TPL do to foster reading in young adults, and how do you target young readers?
We have our annual young voices writers conference that has workshops with authors on non-curriculum based writing styles.
Every branch has a teen zone section or department that will have materials that will appeal to most youth.
Youth Services librarians who specialize in and advocate for youth collection
development, programming, planning, policy creation, etc.
The youth advisory group program is another initiative that allows staff to talk directly to teens in Toronto to find out what is happening in their world and how the library can better serve them in terms of library services, collections and staff support.
However I do have to note that by the time most youth are in grade 9 they have decided whether or not they are a "reader". It is really getting the youth interested in books at much younger ages that will ensure that they keep up with reading and that it becomes a lifetime habit. minute with the very real fears of all the things that could go wrong.
Thanks to Cameron for powering through both a busy schedule (I asked him to do this while on vacation!) and a wounded arm (Feel better soon!) to answer my questions.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Alexis von Konigslow has degrees in mathematics from Queen's and creative writing from Guelph. Her debut novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, was recently called Arcadia for the connected age. She lives in Toronto.
You can contact Alexis throughout the month of September at firstname.lastname@example.org