Book Fight Club

Sarah: I recently saw the new HBO movie adaptation of Fahrenheit 451.
Gene: Starring Michael B. Jordan from Fruitvale Station and Black Panther.
S: It was not great. The ending was updated in a way that I didn’t like.
G: His boss is the bad guy from The Shape of Water, Michael Shannon.
S: He was good. All the performances were good. The changes in the plot were aggravating.
G: Michael B. Jordan plays Guy Montag, right? I recently read someone’s opinion that the book really needed to be updated, that the story needs to be updated. The previous movie was not great.
S: People respond to the story as though it were just about censorship, but Bradbury wrote it about how people have stopped reading because they just want to watch TV. I think that’s absolutely something you can update to the internet era. People don’t want to read long sentences, they want emoji. And that’s how the movie starts. Then there’s book burning, because books bummed people out and caused wars.
G: What bummed people out?
S: Books with sad stories. And religious books cause wars because people disagree about them.
My actual question is this: if you’re in the dystopian future and you have to memorize one book, you’re assigned to memorize one book, how do you go about picking that book? I felt like when Montag met the people who were memorizing books, it looked like they didn’t necessarily get to pick their book. Maybe someone assigned it to them.
G: Oh my god, no!
S: So you’ve got to go in with a strategy or you’re going to end up with a book you don’t like and it’ll be etched into your soul forever. How do you make sure you get a book you can live with for the rest of your life? I liked that the HBO movie updated the books that were being preserved to include more contemporary authors and authors of color…
G: That’s nice.
S: …but it annoyed me that the people who became a book always matched the color of the author. The one Asian-American person had memorized Mao’s Little Red Book. Really?
G: That’s your book? Not an Amy Tan novel or something you’d want to remember?
S: No! Not something that she probably connected with personally. I don’t know. I think 90% of Chinese Americans really don’t like Mao. (laughs) Or at least their parents don’t.
G: I think that’s high, Sarah, I think it’s more like 89%
S: So you, Gene, don’t want to be assigned a guy book just because you’re clearly a guy. You don’t want something based on your demographic background. You want something based on who you are and what book you can live with.
G: That’s the question? How do you do it?
S: How do you go into the room and be like, “I only want prose.” Or “I only want American authors.” Or “I only want books that focus on language rather than character development.”
G: Maybe in that dystopian future, there are few books to choose from.
S: That’s the problem, knowing how non-librarians collect books in those Little Free Libraries, you’re going to end up with a car manual. You’re going to end up with Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
G: (laughs) Oh my god! The Prophet by Gibran. How to Win Friends and Influence People.
S: Exactly! I want to go in there and not get whatever bullshit Little Free Library books were saved. Librarians know about collection development, about core collections.
G: But it couldn’t be a graphic novel.
S: Yeah, or you’d have to act it out.
G: Could it be a picture book? It’d easier to memorize prose. That’s maybe the wrong idea, maybe there’s a way to transmit pictures in a graphic novel. I immediately go to prose, I go to short. I think plays would be easier to memorize.
S: Do you think that’s why that lady chose Mao’s book? “What’s the shortest one you have?”
G: And it’s historic, right? But I think most people would preserve a bestseller…
S: Yes.
G: Every Dean Koontz book would come down through the ages..
S: By sheer numbers…and Stephen King.
G: Stephen King, The Bible, Harry Potter.
S: Harry Potter shows up on the screen in Fahrenheit 451.
G: Could you do it if you didn’t have a choice? I think yes. Because you’re going to get stuck with one book, and you’re desperate to read something anyway.
S: Assume you get to go through the process of memorizing, it’s not just accidental. What do you want to stare at, for as many years of your life as you need to memorize that book?
G: What would I want? I would pick a story that I really like and I would pick a kids’ book. I would pick some Lloyd Alexander book, probably The Book of Three or The Black Cauldron or The High King. (I recognize that Taran Wanderer isn’t the best standalone book in the Prydain series though it’s still my personal favorite.) I’d pick one of those, or my favorite book, LeGuin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. I could memorize the first three books in that series, I think.
S: Yeah. They might be happy if you volunteered to do three. “I’ll do three if I can do these three.”
G: But how do you resolve the fights? “No no no, I’M The Wizard of Earthsea!”
S: Trial by combat!
G: Have a throwdown? Maybe a bunch of people are sitting around reading a copy of John Grisham’s The Client to each other.
S: That’s what I’m afraid of. I don’t want to walk into the room and get The Client.
G: You have to have some redundancy, though, right?
S: Yeah, what if somebody gets set on fire, as happens in the film?
G: Are they setting people on fire?
S: One person immolates herself as a political protest, I think simultaneously eliminating The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck.
G: I remember in high school skipping every other chapter of that book because they were the allegorical chapters. The chapters about the Joads were interesting and readable, though. All I remember is the end, where the woman is breastfeeding an old man who’s dying. And everyone in class was like, “Whaaaaaat?”
S: If you are that book, say, “Calm down. Don’t flip out over this next chapter.”
G: Maybe I’d want to be Between A Rock and A Hard Place by Aron Ralston, the book about the guy who got his hand trapped while hiking and climbing in Utah alone.
S: Ooh, yeah, a gripping true adventure story.
G: Of course there’s be some guy who’d want a Highlander movie novelization. What would you do?
S: See, I should have an awesome answer, since I had a while to think about it…
G: You have two seconds!
S: (blurts quickly) The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman!
G: See, that wasn’t so bad. It’s a funny book.
S: It’s a funny book, it’s in little bits and pieces, you can read it in any order, you can jump around and memorize little bits at a time. Maybe I’d even do the whole trilogy.
G: Can you imagine a library where everyone its the service area got to choose just one book for the collection? And there was nothing else there?

Starting Middle School

Sarah: A friend of mine, her daughter is going to middle school next year. The school she goes to now has a lot of kids who have been protected from the bumps and bruises of life. The don’t have testing, they don’t have grades. It feels very accepting and hippie-ish, but they get to use computers.
Gene: I have some friends whose kids went to a school like that, and they didn’t end up too crazy.
S: It’s interesting, some of them go to similarly special middle schools, and some of them go to the regular middle schools, which can be a bit of a change.
G: Kids with chains and filed-down teeth waiting for them at the door.
S: Waiting to suck their blood.
So my friend gets a letter from the school about how to help her help her daughter to adjust to the changes in going to a new school. The whole thing is about how it’s hard, and it’s harder when they’re going through puberty and social changes, and starting to argue with their parents and having their own sense of what their lives should be. They’re no longer your cute perfect darling children. It can be hard. But it doesn’t approach it as though it’s normal (which it is) and that every parent goes through this (which they do), it’s more like, “This is the upcoming tsunami that’s going to hit your home, you may be concerned. Here’s how to ensure they don’t become dead-eyed drug addicts.”
G: I think I got a letter like this, too, years ago.
S: At the end of the letter, there is a list, Great Books About — and this is actually in quotations — “Middle School.”
G: (laughs) Because we’re not really talking about middle school?
S: I have no idea. There are four fiction and three nonfiction books. The nonfiction books are fairly well-chosen. There’s some recent ones and some older ones that are pretty good.
G: Does it mention using a short-wave radio to call for help?
S: Right, no, it’s not quite that bad. The fiction books, though… my friend, who has an MLIS, who makes booklists herself, was dismayed that they were so old. Old enough that two weren’t in the public library anymore, one was available only as an ebook rerelease, one that’s just old and there are only two copies available.
G: Maybe it’s a cry for help from whoever made that list. Maybe the list had to be district-approved.
S: Exactly. I feel the same frustration with lists people get from their doctors after a diagnosis. The books are all ten or fifteen years old and the library system only has one copy left, with a long, long waiting list. I want to write back to the doctors with a list of ten newer books and tell them to pick the ones they like.
G: You should do that for the school.
S: My friend asked me to make her a list she could share with the other parents.
G: That’s great! You’re living the librarian’s dream!
S: But 99% of my booklist is graphic novels, because that’s what I read. So I wanted to ask if you had some recommendations. Here’s what I have so far:
Awkward and Brave
G: I really liked Brave.
S: Drama.
G: How old is the main character in Drama?
S: I had thought she was in high school, but the synopsis said middle school.
Jedi Academy.
G: Timeless.
S: All’s Faire in Middle School.
G: Liked it, but maybe a limited audience.
S: I added this because I like the author and it had a lot of positive reviews, Planet Middle School. It’s poems about a girl making the shift into middle school, trying out new ways of being more grown up. And these two, which are constantly being requested by kids, The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda and Dork Diaries.
G: Are those middle school?
S: As far as I can tell, yes. Though it’s tough to say sometimes, when the summary describes the characters as being in sixth grade. That could be elementary or middle school. My friend does know me, and would not be surprised if I gave her a list full of graphic novels, but if you can think of any others. There’s those James Patterson middle school comedy novels that seem to be really popular…
G: I don’t read this age very much.
S: …and I don’t know if they’re positive hopeful you-can-do-it kind of books about middle school. Because you don’t necessarily want to give them the books where it looks like everyone gets teased.
G: I haven’t read this series, but I’ve heard they’re good: Positively Izzy. And Roller Girl is solidly middle school, about finding your way.
S: But it’s a summer story more than a school story.
G: But it’s a friend story. Real Friends is good, too
S: But that’s elementary, right?
G: Is it?
S: I seem to think it was pretty young.
G: I can’t remember how old the kids are in the Sunny Books, but Swing It Sunny is middle school. And there’s now a middle school Babymouse book.
S: I think I should ask a children’s librarian, too, because kids in late elementary grades are the ones who are curious about starting middle school. The kids in middle school are thinking about other things, because they’re there already. Which is why I thought of Drama, because it’s not about starting middle school, it’s about being in it.
G: Yeah, I would never booktalk a book about starting middle school in a middle school.
S: Right. My friend thought that clearly the expert would be the teen librarian, but apparently not.
G: Ask us about the transition to high school. The indirect stories, anyway. The direct how-tos are for parents.
S: I want to have the parents read these graphic novels. I want to say, “Hey, it’s not that bad. Everything seems horrible to them because that’s their bodies and their brains going through big changes. Everything seems intense because it’s all new. But people survive this. Kids survive this every day. You’ll survive it. It’s going to be obnoxious, but you’ll survive it.”

Spies Like Thus

Murder, Magic, and What We Wore by Kelly Jones. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2017. 9780553535204. 304pp.

(Note from Gene: I’ve known Kelly since back when she was a children’s librarian back in the early 2000s, I meet her to write a few times a month, and I loved her first book.)

Gene: So your book, your fantastic book. Give me your pitch for it.
Kelly: It’s about a girl, Annis, whose father is murdered and instead of becoming a governess she’d much rather become a spy. Unfortunately the War Office doesn’t see eye to eye with her.
G: Don’t you have to pitch it as a Regency first though?
K: I don’t, actually. I typically don’t. When I’m talking to elementary school kids about what I’m writing next, I say this happened 200 years ago and then I give that pitch. This one kid was like It’s exactly like Maximum Ride!  And I was like, um
G: I haven’t read that. But what about the Alex Rider series. This is if Alex Rider wore a dress and he could sew.
K: Yes. That is exactly not what it is like.
G: No.
K: It’s a Regency but it’s not a romance.
G: She doesn’t find for a while that her dad is murdered. She’s kind of cast out of her life because she and her aunt suddenly don’t have any money — all of her dad’s money goes missing. And she goes to the War Office in a very haughty moment, after she knows she has magical talent, and tries to convince them to hire her as a spy. She goes about it in completely the wrong way.
K: I think that is basically her approach to pretty much everything for most of the book, if not the entire book. She has her idea of how things should be done and nobody else ever agrees with her.
Continue reading “Spies Like Thus”

Hot and Adorable Art: An Interview with Colleen Coover

Small Favors: The Definitive Collection by Colleen Coover. Oni Press, 2017. 9781620103982.

smallfavorsColleen Coover’s Small Favors comics were a revelation for me: I had read a few things from the adults-only section of the comics store (back in 2002, practically the stone age!) and this was the first comic that was truly joyful, playful, and affectionate as well as sexual. It was the first comic that made me feel welcome as a woman (and as a queer woman, too). And the art was gorgeous!

The premise, in brief: Annie’s conscience has decided that she masturbates too much, and assigns the magical Nibbil to her to correct her ways. Fortunately for us all, Nibbil decides to do this by being an enthusiastic sexual partner. Add toys, neighbors, friends, and other characters from Annie’s mind and the series covers a lot of the ways a women enjoy each other.

Now the full collection of Small Favors comics is being republished, complete with some brand new color artwork. Lucky you! I got a chance to ask Colleen Coover a few questions about Small Favors, lucky me!

Sarah: How did Small Favors come to be?
CC: I was working in a comic shop in Iowa in the late 1990s. I noticed that many of the women who came into the shop off the street—women who were not weekly customers, that is—were specifically looking for adult comics. But most of the adult comics at the time were coming from the same sort of creative place as the Underground comics of the 1960s and ‘70s: counter-culture themes, drug culture themes, ultra-violence and shock value were a common focus in these books. While that’s all fine, I didn’t think it was very sexy or friendly to women. I decided to make the kind of adult comic I would want to read, with women having sex for fun, because they liked each other and enjoyed having sex!

Sarah: Nibbil can change from tiny to person-sized, among other things that can only happen in comics. How was the format freeing or limiting to what you wanted to express?
CC: I think it was probably a very manga-influenced idea, the fantastical notion that there’s this person who’s completely her own individual but whose origin is she’s a magic part of this other person’s psyche? And they make a pretty regular life together in a little house with a yard? But then also they have sex adventures all the time and nobody seems to have a job? That’s very 90s manga-like to me, like Ranma ½ or Tenchi Muyo. It gives the story a bit of grounding, but allows for literally anything to happen and not feel at all strange or out of place.

Sarah: I love that you broke the fourth wall in several of your comics! I sometimes have a worry in the back of my head about my gaze being exploitative of porn performers, some mish mash of messages from anti-porn writers on both the liberal and conservative side of the issue. The characters in Small Favors knew we were reading and were enthused about being watched and enjoyed, which felt like a relief. Was it important to you to acknowledge your readers this way?
CC: The number one rule in Small Favors is everyone is having a good time, including the reader, so I always wanted to be sure nothing went on in the stories that would distract from the happy stuff. I remember in Madonna’s forward to her big coffee table book SEX, she wrote about the importance of safer sex and using condoms in real life (this was in 1992, at the peak of the AIDS epidemic), but that the photos in the book were a fantasy where tragic realities were not a part of the equation. Small Favors is like that: the sex is fun, a pleasure to be shared and enjoyed. Love is there, and exploration and inclusion of pretty much everyone Annie and Nibbil ever meet (including the readers!), but there’s no jealousy, no real conflict, no guilt. It is purely feel-good sexual entertainment.

Sarah: The new color art is gorgeous. What was it like to revisit this art after having published so much other work in a variety of other genres?
CC: The color art is actually from 2003—it was the last comic book issue of the original series, but it has never been reprinted before in trades, so that will be exciting for a lot of people, I hope! There is a new black and white story in the collection that I drew just this past autumn. My style has never changed much through the years from genre to genre, so much as it has evolved. So with this new story, while I was definitely getting into the groove of Annie and Nibbil’s characters and their world, I did a lot of cartooning the way I do in Bandette, with a lot of expressive faces and slightly exaggerated features. It’s a way of drawing I just hadn’t grown into yet when I was drawing Small Favors on the regular, though it was the direction I was headed.

Sarah: Are there any artists or works in comics erotica that inspired you? Any that came after you that you like? (a note to the reader: many of the following links are NSFW)
CC: There were many comics that had a role in shaping Small Favors! Omaha The Cat Dancer by Reed Waller and Kate Worley was pretty and romantic. Gilbert Hernandez’ Birdland was surreal and funny. Milo Manara’s erotic work was lush and mature and took itself seriously. Bondage Fairies was spritely and fantastical and very much a manga. Now, I’ll check in on the web comic Oglaf once every few months or so and binge read like there’s no tomorrow.