Friday, September 7, 2012

How Juvenile Should Juvenile Be?

I recently finished reading The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan. I had several friends rate this book very highly on Goodreads. I'm a sucker for good juvenile / middle grades fantasy, so I had to check it out.

I find myself more and more often turning to the children's stacks at the library. For one, there are no late fees (^_^), so when I'm too lazy to drag my kids to the library, it's not such a big deal. However I find my interest in middle grades fiction growing more and more. Sure, many of the books I come across are more juvenile than I would like, some deal with very juvenile issues and are hard to relate too, and some are just poor quality all around. However, there are still a large quantity of little gems floating around with 11 and 12 year old heros and heroines. Some books transcend age and life situation and speak to readers on a very human level. Sometimes, I think, it requires the eyes of youth to pierce the cynicism of age. Well written juvenile fiction is quickly becoming one of my favorite types of books to read.

Sadly, after reading just the first page of The Ruins of Gorlan, I could tell this book wasn't one of those little gems. There was no subtlety or mastery in the writing. Descriptions were bland and common and the author's attempt to pull the reader into the book seemed both cliche' and forced, like the author was trying just a little too hard to sound engaging and mysterious.

Fortunately, though, this wasn't just another overly simplified attempt at a LoTR rehash. The story is it's own. The characters and setting don't feel like a copy and paste of some other fantasy book. There is enough originality here to help counteract the cliche's. The characters change and grow and feel like more than stereotypes. There are enough redeeming qualities to this book to make it not only readable, but enjoyable.

Still, as I read, the questions kept bothering me. How juvenile should juvenile fiction be? How much should I really be disappointing in the quality of this book? I'm not it's target audience after all.

I couldn't help but compare The Ruins of Gorlan to an entirely unrelated middle grades novel I read a few months ago - The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente. I absolutely loved this book. The writing was rich and downright beautiful. Everything about it was unique. Parts of the book made me laugh out loud, other parts made me a little bit watery-eyed, other parts just blew my mind away with surprise or insight.

I wish I could could climb into the mind of a 12 year old and understand what they feel when they read. If a 12 year old read these two books, what would their reaction be? Would they find The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland to be too dull or too uncomprehensible? Would they find Gorlan to be too simple? Of course it depends on the reader, but the question also should be asked, how much should we expect of young readers? Does juvenile fiction really need to be dumbed down for it's intended audience, or can it find a way to appeal to both the reluctant and advanced readers without becoming overly simplified or condescending?

Books like Gorlan have their place and their value. I can see this as being and excellent sort of book for a reluctant (especially boy) reader. However, it's just one of many books in a stack that could fill that role. It's the kind of book that gets forgotten, replaced by the next exciting juvenile fantasy adventure waiting in line. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is memorable and stands out from the rest.  It has the potential to be a classic. It's the kind of book that I can imagine surviving the generations, that parents can introduce to their children, and those children can introduce to their children.

Is one necessarily better than the other? Should writers really strive for one type of middle grades book over the other? Probably not. At the same time I would love to see young readers pushed and challenged outside of their comfort zone more often. A higher quality in juvenile fiction will allow young readers to stay within the realms of fantasy and adventure, while also broadening their skills, their understanding, and their ability to see the world outside of themselves. Fortunately, I think the book community is already moving in this direction. The quality of middle grades novels being released right now is, overall, absolutely incredible. If you haven't delved much into this genre I highly encourage you to give it a try. You are certain to find something that surprises you.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


I just finished reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. Those who haven't read it probably have very similar expectations as I had. I had heard about about the book, of course (who hasn't?), but didn't understand anything about the actual contents of the book. My husband recommended that I read it, and I have to admit I was reticent. I'm not very much of a non-fiction reader, and I especially have never been impressed by self-improvement type books.

I've actually attempted many sorts of self-improvement methods, mostly those that pertain to daily motivation and productivity. I think one of the misunderstandings about this book, is that people equate the word "effective" with "productivity" or "motivation." When I picked up this book, I was sure I was going to be reading a book about a checklist of 7 habits to include in my daily routine. Even though it would be 7 things added to my to-do list, these things were somehow going to help me get done the rest of the things on my list. I expected the 7 habits to be a lot of psyching up type things that would give me this kind of motivation:

Like I said, I've been through many attempts to improve my motivation and productivity. I've been on mailing lists and done checklists and to-do lists. I tend to quickly lose patience with the rigidity of checklists and eventually end up less productive because of them. After about a week of to-do lists I usually do end up like this:

(Thank you Hyperbole and a Half for so excellently summing up my life for me)

Fortunately, The 7 Habits is not simply about productivity and motivation. There is no psyching up, no metaphorical self-improving sugar rushes. Effectiveness, in this book, is not about how much we get done each day, it is about what we do each day and the choices we make.

What is an effective person then? An effective person does not let the past determine who they will be. Whether the past is that of the family or the self, an effective person keeps their end goal in mind, not past failures. An effective person changes the script of their life to meet that end goal. Covey encourages us to make a personal mission statement, to outline the person we really want to become. If we are striving daily toward that goal, and coming closer to it a little at a time, then we are effective people. The 7 Habits  (perhaps better titled 7 Qualities of Highly Effective People) aren't designed to give us daily motivation for our to-do list, they are designed to help us change ourselves little by little everyday so that we can reach our true potential as effective people

Covey's book is powerful because he has based his claims entirely on his belief that "as human beings, we cannot perfect ourselves. To the degree to which we align ourselves with correct principles, divine endowments will be released within our nature in enabling us to fulfill the measure of our creation." This is what true change is. Motivation and psyching up are temporary. They are quick fixes for getting things done in a rush. They are not long lasting principles of change. Instead of a quick fix or a checklist, Covey gives us the means to look within ourselves and find the things that need to be adjusted. He gives us correct principles, and the insight needed to interpret and apply those principles to our own situations. He gives us the tools to enable real change and progress.

Habit 1: Be Proactive -  take control of situations rather than let situations control you. Don't be a reactionary person. Be willing to say no to demands that do not align with your priorities.

Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind - Create a personal mission statement. Imagine the ideal you,  and make your decision based on that ideal.

Habit 3: Put First Things First - Plan out your week, make goals and prioritize them. Place priority on things that are actually important to your personal mission statement rather than things that seem "urgent"

Habit 4: Think Win-win - try to seek mutually beneficial outcomes in your relationships. Other people don't have to lose in order for you to win

Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood - we often think we understand people when we are really only applying our experience to theirs. Instead of looking at someone from our point of view, we should try to look at their experience (and ourselves) from their point of view.

Habit 6: Synergize - We all have different attributes and strengths. Rather than criticizing others for the attributes they do not have, we should be seeking out the strengths they do have and learning how we can combine those strengths with our own to seek an outcome better than any of us could have achieved individually. Habit 5 plays into this one a lot. I thought they were very similar. We can understand principles and ideas better if we include the ways in which other people perceive those principles.

Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw / Self-renewal - this concept focuses a lot on the 4 pillars of health - mind, body, spirit, social. We have to find balance between these different areas to be truly healthy people. And if we are not healthy we cannot be effective. Covey encourages us not to skip on building these areas of our lives and reminds us not to say we don't have time. Renewing ourselves is the #1 thing that will allow us to have time for other things.

Covey's process of change is an inside-out process. Change has to occur within ourselves before it can occur elsewhere. I have to first become a better person before I can become a better parent. I have to become a better parent before I can have a happier, more peaceful home. I have to learn to balance and act on my priorities as a  wife and mother before I can improve my relationships with my husband and children. This book has changed the way I judge myself (for the better) and the way I analyze my own life and relationships. It's given me new insights into myself and why some things just aren't working. Slowly I can make the changes I need to make in order to become the person I want to become.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Shades of Grey

It's roughly 500 years after a great cataclysm known as the Something That Happened (which occurs sometime in our distant future). The exact circumstances of the cataclysm are unknown, and only remnants of the Previous remain to give clues to their history and way of life, a life that the great leader Munsell teaches was filled with selfishness and greed. Munsell rebuilds society into the great Collective, with each citizen striving to put his civic duty before his own needs and wants.

This new society is structured according to color perception. Some can see red, some can see blue, and some can see mixed colors like purple and green. Purples and Greens dominate the top teir of the colortocracy with the laboring Greys at the very bottom. Greater privileges are given to those who can see a higher percentage of their color, and those with a perception higher than 70% are able to sit on their local council of Prefects.

Eddie Russet and his father are Reds on their way to their temporary home in East Carmine, a town in the socially questionable Outer Fringes. Eddie has yet to be officially tested in his color perception, but can see a lot more red than he lets on to others. He's also insatiably curious and has been assigned to learn greater humility by completing a Chair Census during his stay in East Carmine. Unfortunately Eddie's curiosity only leads him to greater trouble and eventually into the jaws of a giant man-eating plant.

While reading Shades of Grey, it's easy to forget that it's supposed to be a dystopian book. True, any aristocratic society is much less than ideal, but the citizens seem content and the Collective truly seems to be providing for the needs of its citizens. The people are fed, clothed, and are required to engage in leisure activities. They are given ample opportunities to see beauty and color outside their normal spectrum through the use of synthesized color. Though the ideologies of the Collective are obviously flawed to us, we feel that they are motivated by good intentions to a create strong, stable society. It's easy to get swept along in the world of color and, like the citizens who live there, numbly forget about the importance of individuality and creativity. These are replaced with a feeling of contentment and comfort. We follow along with Eddie Russet in our contentment and, like him, are jarred out of our comfort and indifference through shocking events like the disappearance of Travis Canary, the revelations of the Apocryphal Man, the poor treatment of the Greys, and the plight of the poor lovers Imogen and Dorian. As we travel with Eddie to High Saffron we feel the sting of social injustice priming us for the shocking revelations Eddie will learn there.

When we finally learn the truth about the Collective, it is all the more shocking and painful because of the comfort and indifference we have felt all throughout the book. The Collective hasn't been sending children to an arena to kill each other or turning them into soldiers. Unlike many dystopian books, the tone of Shades of Grey is light and the Collective's misdeeds are much less obvious. Fforde's subtlety and our naiveté (as well as Eddie's) make the betrayal all the more poignant. Suddenly we see our entire experience in the Collective in a different light and we feel overwhelmingly sickened.

But like a true hero, Eddie Russet rises from his sudden enlightenment, not with despair, but with purpose. He's ready to take his life into his own hands for the first time and make choices that will make him happy. With over 80% red he's ready to take on the Collective and lead the people of East Carmine towards true knowledge and happiness. Unfortunately, life in a dystopia is never that simple, and Eddie instead finds himself faced with a whole new set of pitfalls. Many of his hopes are dashed before they can even begin to form, and with his final interaction with the Colorman, we feel that he might actually break - and if he does, we will break with him. Instead of breaking, Eddie takes the mantle of responsibility and revolution on his shoulders, and with that mantle comes the need for heartbreaking sacrifices. In spite of the sorrow and bleak view we have of the future, we are able to see in Eddie Russet's determination a spark of hope as well. Eddie truly becomes a man at the end of the book, and not just because of his color perception test. If Eddie is able to change so much in the course of a few days, then imagine the changes that can occur within the Collective.

I made the mistake of finishing this book right before bed. All I could do was lay awake thinking "Wow! Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow." The ending to Shades of Grey was absolutely overwhelming - shocking, disappointing, and exciting all at the same time. The journey was unique and incredible and I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves dystopian novels, quirky humor, satire, and good writing. Jasper Fforde is a master of turning the absurd into the profound. If you ever wanted to pick up a Jasper Fforde book then this might be the best place to start - no previous knowledge of literature or nursery rhymes required. A great read from beginning to end, and it makes you want to pick up the next one immediately. Too bad the next one doesn't come out until next year :(

Saturday, February 18, 2012


You could say I've been on a sabbatical from books and blogs lately. I've still been reading and interwebsing, just in very small, more infrequent sessions. Mostly, I've been engaging in lots of selfish , time wasting pursuits, wallowing in lots of self-pity, and drinking lots and lots of hot chocolate. I suppose sabbaticals are supposed to be self-improving and rejuvenating, so I suppose a sabbatical is not exactly what I've been doing.

I'm not one of those super organized, proactive people. I find that I fall into ruts fairly easy and have a mess trying to climb my way out. Sometimes I don't even realize when I've fallen into a rut, but then I wake up one day and realize that I'm 9 pounds heavier than I thought I was (and what I thought I was is still heavier than I'd like to be), I don't remember the last time I actually cooked dinner, my almost 5 year old son is no closer to potty training or recognizing his letters, my greatest recent achievement involves camels, and I haven't finished reading a book in months.

Picking up a book seems like a great place to start. Somehow, I always seem to find myself in just about anything I read. My own goals and values seem so much clearer and attainable while reading the struggles and accomplishments of others, fictional or not. Books help me gain perspective in my life, often more than anything else. It's also a worthwhile and stimulating way to spend my free time.

Fortunately the books I've picked up recently are all books that are particularly great for climbing out of a rut.

My husband recommended that I read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey. I had, of course, heard about this book before but never thought it would be a book that interested me or even one that applied to me. I really thought it was one of those "management" books for business people to feel more self-important about themselves than many of them already do. It's completely the opposite of my expectations and I am enjoying using it as a tool to review the own direction my life is taking.

I also have a goal to work through the books on my shelves that I have never read, most of these are religous books that either Seth brought into our marriage or I owned but never got around to reading. One of these is Spiritual Plateaus by Glenn L. Pace. I enjoy the approach this book takes toward gospel principles. The style is neither overly simple or overly scholarly, but is much more conversational than many similar books. It's easy to focus on the depths of the principles without having to sift through heavy, eye blearing language.

I always need a fiction book in my life, so I am also reading Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde. Fforde ranks very high on my list of favorite authors and someday I will dedicate and official blog post to his works. For now suffice it to say that his works are a thought provoking critique of self and society, but are also silly, fun, and laugh-out-loud humorous from beginning to end. I am finding Shades of Grey a little slower and harder to get into than the Thrusday Next series, but that is perhaps simply because I have become comfortable to Thrusday's world. Fforde is a master of creating a world that is slightly "off" from our own, but bringing us into it as though everything were perfectly normal. I look forward to unraveling all the little mysteries of Chromaticia that I don't yet understand.

I'm glad to be getting back on the wagon and look forward to lots of self-improving hours of reading, pontificating, and reflecting.