Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Nonfiction | To Be a Kid in the '90s

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"From the perspective of an adult, everything's a blip that'll be forgotten tomorrow. But to a kid, everything is so big, and we wanted to fill these stories with big energy."

It is no secret that I am more nostalgic than most; I relish in reminiscences on youth. I'm sure there's some psychological evidence that credits the way our adolescent brains develop, but I've always had this strong belief that the details of our lives during those times stick around in memory longer—deeper—than most.

For a kid growing up in the 1990s—a particular group on the cusp of both Generations X and Y, belonging fully to neither—there is nothing that defines our childhood quite like America Online and Nickelodeon. We were enticed by the possibility of immediate world wide connectivity AND the chance to scale the Aggro Crag in all its multi-colored, glitter-spewing glory. Maybe it's a moment in history no more unique than any other generation's adolescent years [though this article refutes that idea, and I most definitely agree!] but 1990s Nickelodeon embodied an independent, outspoken, quirky celebration of childhood that was unique, magical, and incredibly rare—one that I am very grateful to have experienced.

Mathew Klickstein must be a child of the '90s, to share this recognition of such a special moment in pop culture history. I can only imagine that Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon's Golden Age is his own passion project, intended for all the other nostalgic Nick devotees.


Well, further research indicates he's brought upon himself quite a lot of controversy by making very asinine statements (a summary) regarding women and minorities, so maybe we'll just ignore the author and talk about Nick Nostalgia from here on out...


Klickstein structures Slimed! in the same fashion as the exposition on the movie Clueless I recently read—it's a history culled from interviews with key players, an "oral history" loosely organized around theme or topic with no guiding narrative voice. Focusing mostly on early Nickelodeon shows (You Can't Do That on Television, Clarissa Explains it All, Hey Dude, Salute Your Shorts, Double Dare, Rugrats, Doug, and Ren & Stimpy), Slimed! shares the stories that inspired the shows and got them on air. We hear anecdotes and explanations from network heads, show creators, producers, actors, and crew revealing all the roadblocks and backstage drama (or lack thereof) along the way. Mostly, we learn about the mindset, the creativity, and the decisions that created an identity and defined Nickelodeon as this network we (okay, some of us) remember so distinctly twenty years later.

"It was the first time I realized there was a Nickelodeon generation of kids coming of age that were going to bring to whatever they were doing professionally a sense of humor or a look at the world that was shaped in part by Nick."

I've always thought the story of classic Nickelodeon to be a fascinating one. Its history is so vague, so empty, so devoid of a comprehensive archive that plagues all parts of the entertainment industry these days! I remember in late high school (in the early 2000s), it seemed that these shows and this era had all but disappeared; they never re-ran on the network, and you couldn't find anything about them online except note of their one-time existence. With the maturing of my age group, though, and the eventual collective demand for Nickelodeon nostalgia, that has begun to change.

Slimed! is by no means a comprehensive history. In fact, it is frustratingly bereft of basic history on the network, its early years, and the people involved with it. (Seriously, when/where/why did it even start?) There is still a lot of the story I want to hear, and, considering this is pretty much the first volume to even broach the topic, a basic history would've added a great deal of important context to the story (and been greatly appreciated so I didn't have to Google search it for hours). However, I do think it's a story that's just beginning to be told, one that developed so organically that there may not be some definitive history there just waiting to be written down and shared.

The story of Nickelodeon's "Golden Age" is kind of a heart-warming one. It's a story of creative people who ended up together to make something new, something authentic, that defied commercial norms and truly captured—in the most refreshingly simplistic way—the offbeat whimsy and excitement of childhood.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Reading Roundup: Sassy Sleuths

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From its back-cover synopsis, The Secret Life of Anna Blanc by Jennifer Kincheloe has got some promising components. It's a mystery set in Los Angeles during the early 1900s, and its protagonist is a spirited socialist-turned-sleuth. Anna is stifled, naturally, as a wealthy woman in this time. Her father prevents her from doing anything remotely independent and is basically trying to marry her off. Her impulsive behaviors have always seemed to be merely a flash of rebellion, spurred by boredom and frustration, but she catches wind of some mysterious deaths surrounding prostitutes and decides it's worth investigating because the police seem to just be sweeping it under the rug. Of course, she must do all of this without her father or fiance finding out about it...

This was a random book I picked up off the NEW shelf at the library, and it didn't totally disappoint. I'm not a frequent reader of mysteries, but I enjoy the ones that have precocious or spunky sleuths, especially female ones. This fits into that category; the story itself was entertaining enough, and I especially enjoyed the setting. Something about the writing, though, just seemed a little off throughout. Though this doesn't come from a typically "religious" publisher, it had some really...strange...phrasing/commentary, particularly on prostitutes and religion—not enough to be preachy but enough to catch me off guard and, on reflection, seem forced. It was a writing "style" (that may be too definitive of a word) that I felt would've been squelched and smoothed by a strong editor. Regardless, this is one of those books—like most mysteries to me—that serves its purpose as entertainment during the reading process but doesn't stick around once the last words are read.

Though I adore Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series, its status as a mystery series automatically designates it into that "enjoy while reading, most likely forget afterwards" category. (What I'm saying is I don't mean that as a cruel comment; different types of stories serve different purposes, rightly so!) As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is the seventh book in the series, launching Flavia into a new chapter after the definitive close at the end of the sixth. Flavia has been sent away from her home of Buckshaw, across the ocean to Miss Bodycote's Female Academy in Toronto. Flavia's mother attended Miss Bodycote's, and with the almost immediate discovery of a body stuffed in the chimney of her room, Flavia determines there's definitely more than meets the eye to her new environs.

It's easy to read each book in the Flavia series as a simple episodic mystery, but book six, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, definitely seemed to set the series on a path with deeper character development for Flavia. Bradley developed backstory to Flavia and her family and triggered a move outside her comfort zone, the familiar settings of Buckshaw and Bishop's Lacey. It's almost like when a TV cast transitions from high school to college, and the setting, characters, and conflict suddenly change; sometimes it's successful, and sometimes it's not. I've read comments from readers who finished Chimney Sweepers with a sour taste in their mouths, because it prompts the debate as to whether it's a necessary transition or not—is Flavia's story an episodic one or a long-form drama? Is the mystery the main focus or is the character? I don't know, and I'm not sure the author does either. Flavia is a character that I bet many readers are curious to see developed, but the indecisive focus on the narrative may weaken future stories. It's a tenuous line to tow, I'm sure. For current and future Flavia stories, though, I'll just continue to accept as is, with no expectation of direction, because she is such an enjoyable character to encounter.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Speed Dating with Middle Grade: Part 12

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Title: Fuzzy Mud
Author: Louis Sachar
Genre: Adventure, Sci-fi
Read If You Like...: Varied text features, realistic stories with unrealistic components, The Secret World of Alex Mack
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Marshall and Tamaya follow the same route every day to and from school, but when a bully forces them off path on a long route of avoidance, they make a startling scientific discovery. There's a weird kind of "fuzzy" mud in the woods that causes a super scary rash that spreads quickly, has no known cure, and quickly gets authorities and scientists drawn into this eco-horror story. I found the narrative pretty disjointed and the characters lacking any amount of depth to draw in a reader, but maybe a reader who doesn't want a long reading commitment will enjoy it.

Title: Nimona
Author: Noelle Stevenson
Genre: Adventure/Fantasy, Graphic Novel
Read If You Like...: Epic adventures with heroes and villains, graphic novels (MSers aren't too discerning on genre with these)
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Nimona is a high-energy young shape-shifter who worms her way into a position as villainous Lord Blackheart's sidekick. Blackheart's nemesis in the kingdom is an old friend, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin, and Blackheart is determined to prove the hero isn't so heroic after all. My graphic novel fans really like this one, but, though I love the art, I just never really connected with its scattered story and irreverent sense of humor.

Title: The Jumbies
Author: Tracey Baptiste
Genre: Adventure/Fantasy
Read If You Like...: Folk tales, fairy tales, stories with a unique setting
Three-Sentence Thoughts: Jumbies are the dark creatures of the forest feared by all, but Corinne, unafraid of anything, doesn't believe they actually exist. When a beautiful stranger suddenly shows up in town and bewitches Corinne's father, she must face the magic she's always doubted and figure out how to save her island home. Based on Caribbean folklore, this fills a great gap in children's literature by sharing the fairy tales from underrepresented cultures. [In her author's note at the end, Baptiste adds, “I grew up reading European fairy tales that were nothing like the Caribbean jumbie stories I listened to on my island of Trinidad. There were no jumbie fairy-tale books, though I wished there were. This story is my attempt at filling that gap in fairy-tale lore."]

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Nonfiction | Everyday Words on Everyday Moments

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Poetry, historically, is not my thing. I think I can trace it back to my senior year of high school. I was spending a weekend at a state university as part of an Honors Program interview, and we had a seminar session on analyzing a poem. After much lengthy discussion and debate on the poet's motives, meaning, word choice, etc., our discussion leader informed us that the poem in question was not, in fact, actually a real poem but merely an amalgamation of lines from various Dr. Seuss books. Which then prompted further debate on what does constitute a poem. Needless to say, I found this exercise infuriating, and the interpretation of poetry from this analytical perspective turned me off the whole genre for years.

I've since begun, bit by bit, to appreciate poetry on a more personal level. In academic discourse, we're generally taught to approach poetry with a critical eye. We dissect poems into small pieces of words and patterns and use this analysis to speculate on the author's purpose and meaning. And to me, that kind of close reading is MISERABLE. I like to just accept poetry as is, without any interpreted attribution of the author's words. It was written with meaning by the author; it may or may not connect with each reader.

Despite my own problematic history with poetry, it's a genre I try to promote to my middle schoolers to broaden their reading. For the Read Harder Challenge's "collection of poetry" category, I chose a title I'd recently purchased for my school library, Gary Soto's A Fire in My Hands.

THIS collection I can get behind. Soto writes on small moments and memories from his childhood and adolescence in Fresno, California. The most well-known poem from this collection, "Oranges," captures the awkward, nervous elation of a first date on an ordinary gray December day. "How You Gave Up Root Beer" describes the most embarrassing moment around "the girl you like more than your own life." Soto explains the complex way of the world in juvenile terms in "How Things Work." And "Hitchhiking with a Friend" details the briefest of young adventures with a friend, feeling the exhilaration of being far from home, eyes open to "the notion of beauty" in small, unfamiliar sights.

My favorite, though, is "That Girl," a beautiful reminiscence on those early days of lust.

The public library was saying things
In so many books
And I, a Catholic boy
In a green sweater,
Was reading the same page
A hundred times...

Soto's poems lack a commanding rhythm or rhyme scheme, and they rarely feature such simile or metaphor. The words never devolve into poetic descriptors or illustrative adjectives. But they have a soothing rhythm and use simple words to evoke simple experiences. I found the best part of this collection (the revised and expanded edition, specifically) to be the inclusion of an introduction by the author as well as very brief anecdotes that precede each poem. In the introduction, Soto shares his background with poetry and his connection with the place and environment that inspired these poems. The anecdotes at the beginning of each individual poem add context that contributes to the personal appeal of the poem--which, as I stated earlier, is exactly what I'm looking for in a poem! I think this collection is easily accessible, especially to young readers and reluctant [poetry] readers, because it's the kind of poetry that makes you feel like your own small moments are unique and worthy of mention and memory.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Fiction | Love & Race in a Modern World

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah has been on my reading queue since all its buzz during the early days of its release in 2013. Recently, though, while relaxing on the beach for Spring Break, was the perfect time to settle in with it for the "book by an author from Africa" category for the Read Harder Challenge.

Americanah tells the story of two ambitious young people, Ifemelu and Obinze, from their adolescent lives together in Lagos to their independent journeys as adults across oceans and away from their home and their shared lives.

Ifemelu is a headstrong, independent young woman. She's beautiful, yes, but she's full of ambition and has a thoughtful way of looking at the world and how it works. She has strong opinions and a stoic, sometimes judgmental, way of coping and conversing. Her way of thinking provides the meat of this story and the experiences, but she's certainly not someone you'll feel warm and fuzzy about. (To be honest, I feel like she might be a person who, in real life, would come off as a bit standoffish.)

"They looked at the world with an impractical, luminous earnestness that moved her, but never convinced her."

Obinze is a bit more quiet, though a bit more gregarious than Ifemelu—and no less ambitious. From an early age, he's been fascinated with the United States—the books, the movies, the music—and always planned to move there. Together as teenagers and young adults, Obinze and Ifemelu discover a relationship that challenges each to be informed and outspoken, passionate and determined. When Ifemelu takes an opportunity to study and New York, she and Obinze make plans for their future together with him joining her in America. However, the insecurity of the post-9/11 world disrupts their plans, and Obinze is sent back across the Atlantic. Ifemelu builds a life in New York that becomes plagued with insecurities and uncertainties; Obinze settles for a time as an undocumented immigrant in London before being shipped back again to Nigeria. Years later, after years of silence and unanswered questions, Ifemelu and Obinze have both returned to their homeland where their lives have the potential to collide once again.

The most talked-about aspect of this book has consistently been its observations on race in America. Ifemelu is a character with an observant perspective, as an African coming to America where her identity is suddenly more defined by the color of her skin. She's learning how being black in America, specifically, seems to have its own identity—its own set of rules, stereotypes, and expectations. Coupled with this, Ifemelu and Obinze are both faced with new challenges as immigrants in a modern world.

Ifemelu finds reprieve from her personal struggles in a digital forum, authoring a blog called "Raceteenth Or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) By A Non-American Black." It is through these blog posts that the reader is best able to experience American society through Ifemelu's foreign eyes. She is observant on the intricacies of race, noting societal norms that are often unwritten or unspoken.

"At least online they could ignore the awareness of how inconsequential they had become."

Despite all of this, and despite the notoriety the book has received for these themes, I actually found the overall story to be much more deeply rooted in the relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze. It is one that is deeply affected by larger society, yes, but one that I think serves as the foundation to the story itself. In this regard, I read Americanah as a very contemporary, universal story of a modern romance. It is increasingly rare that a relationship will exist and evolve in isolation. Jobs change; people migrate; distances are shrinking as the world gets smaller and more connected. Americanah reflects those relationship challenges inherent in modernity.

This is the first work I've read by Adichie, and I found her to have an amazingly adept way with words when describing those intricate workings of the world.

"...the familiarity strangers adopt with each other after sharing in the disappointment of a public service."

I think this must have been a daunting book to write, because it's obvious the author has much to say—but how to say those things without devolving into strictly a discourse? She deftly injects commentary into strong characters, arousing passion in the reader for both the person and the message. This is a book that will inspire thoughtful reflection and consideration—a powerful voice for our modern world.