Celebrating the Holidays, Library Style!

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We are big Pinterest fans in my library and before the holidays, we were busy thinking about cool ways to ramp up our winter decorations. Our artificial garland had been around for ten years and was just limply phoning it in - even the tartan wired ribbon had lost its brogue. So when we stumbled upon book tree examples, we knew we had to make our own.

A lot of book tree creators wrap their books with a solid color paper or use books of a series that are the same color and size for ease of stacking (way to use those old solid green tax codes, librarians!). Most of them appeared to be green, but I thought red would be far more festive, so I hunted up books with spines in a shade of red that came from topics not likely to be used for research this time of year (we are in the midst of World Civ and U.S. History term papers, but they have a limit on how modern the topic can be). Modern China and the feminism section of the 300s yielded major dividends, so I pulled those and plenty of others so I had a nice smorgasbord of red to choose from.

Students, eager to procrastinate help, leapt on my spreading out over a hundred books around the table (I wasn't sure I could support a full book tree). I was happy to supervise, and we decided to separate out the books by size and width to insure stability and I think our STEM program would have been impressed with the degree of physics utilized to make this happen. We did a nice stack, taking about an hour and half to complete it. It took us until the next day to figure out how to top it, but we finally saw a close up picture of the smaller books stacked to a point. Some awesome gold sparkle mistletoe picks from Joann Fabrics, our leftover lights from a decade ago and a huge gold bow and we were in business!

But we got ambitious, and before I knew it we had the fake snow with donated little houses (one of them a book shop) nestled underneath. The kids visiting the library each day LOVED the tree and when we were looking at other book trees and comparing them unfavorably to our wonderful tree, we saw a picture of a book fireplace and the race was on.

Our bound National Geographic magazines stretch back to the 1920s and the bindings are in varying shades of red, just like bricks! To offer the right about of stability to the stacking, we did two rows of books on each side, sliding in a piece of black foam core to emulate the inside of a fireplace. I got a perfect piece of stiff foam at Joann's for under $10 (we used this to measure the distance of the books for the fireplace) and I covered it with a couple yards of cheap red felt, secured with quilting pins. A three dollar red sparkle bow, also secured with pins, polished up the mantle into a showpiece and I had to get a little doormat that looked like a carpet at Kmart. It was perfect for our menorah, and I love the feature of the kraft paper wrapped books for logs and with the construction paper flames coming out of them (a good use for a few reference discards).

Around this time, we discovered that some of our playful colleagues decided to have a department Christmas tree contest, so we pitted our tree against the development, admissions, class deans, and college guidance departments. Once a prize was in our sights, I'll confess we got a leetle competitive, perhaps urged on by the cheeky smack talk from our colleagues (ahem, class deans!). We made letters from famous authors writing as children to Santa (J. D. Salinger, Edgar Allan Poe, William Shakespeare, and Samuel Clemens) using characteristics of those authors.

We won the contest and our kids were SO proud of the display and made a point of dragging other students over to see it if they hadn't been in the library for a day or two. When I went to our main school building to hear the results of the contest, the kids knew that the day of reckoning had come - I didn't realize they were all lingering in the library to hear who had won after school. When I walked in with the trophy (a spray painted ugly tree from Goodwill that will now be our Stanley Cup equivalent in years to come), the whole library broke out into spontaneous cheering! We even made a triumphal video (only available to Facebook users since it's so embarrassing how we are hamming it up dancing to "Eye of the Tiger").

I'm already thinking (and pinning ideas) about what we can do next year. This was such a fun "before holiday break" activity at a time when we most need a little focus and lift in the school year.

Predicting a Great Short Story - Foretold: 14 Stories of Prophecy and Prediction

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Foretold: 14 Stories of Prophecy and Prediction
After taking a look at the authors who contributed to the anthology, Foretold: 14 Stories of Prophecy and Prediction, edited by Carrie Ryan, it wasn't hard to see that this grouping of short stories was going to be terrific.

I adore short story anthologies, for a couple of reasons. I usually read the collections that have a few writers I love (Richelle Mead, Laini Taylor and Diana Peterfreund were my draws in this one) just so I can get my fix while waiting for their next book. But short story anthologies are also like trolling for new authors. After all, if I'm reading a collection, it's usually built around a theme I like and I've noticed that authors, young adult ones in particular, have a tendency to form close bonds with writers of a similar quality. Get one great YA author in a collection and chances are you've hit the jackpot.

"Gentlemen Send Phantoms" by Laini Taylor

What a perfect story to start the collection! This terrific, romantic tale is set in a time where superstition and minor witchcraft was still a part of daily life. Three friends take advantage of the idea that on October 6th, a future husband's phantom will visit his destined wife. All three girls want the handsome Matty, much to Pippin's dismay. She and Matty have been friends since childhood, but she's small and not as womanly as the others.  When she breaks the rules to save her friends, events transpire to make her think that she has no chance with Matty after all, or does she?

I didn't realize that the author who wrote the dark and haunting book, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, could pen such a sweet romance but her chops come through yet again as she showcases her ability to have you buy into a fantastic setting with no reservations. It's an incredible ability not a lot of writers can boast.

"Burned Bright" by Diana Peterfreund

It's no secret that I adore Diana Peterfreund; she always blows me away with the power of her writing and this short story was no exception. Alternating points of view between the charismatic daughter of a cult leader predicting the end of the world and the boy who loves her, this contains an utterly chilling ending. I love stories where I am uncertain about what is really happening - where it's uncertain what is the "truth" - and Peterfreund weaves a complex web in this tale that has me still thinking about the characters a few days later.

The quality I love the most about Peterfreund's writing is her unbelievably strong female characters. These girls are powerful, realize it, and aren't afraid to use their gifts. I always forget how rare this is in young adult literature until I read her work. Anyone who hasn't read her Killer Unicorns series needs to get their butt in gear and do so. It's amazing.

"The Angriest Man" by Lisa McMann

I've never read anything by this author before. Set in an ambiguous semi-fantasy world with an estranged and neglected boy born with a supernatural quality, this story was beautifully written - you enjoyed the feeling of the words in your mouth all the while trying to figure out the truth. Was this unnamed protagonist truly a result of something highly supernatural? Should his mother be blamed for neglecting him? If he really was somehow endowed with otherworldly qualities, how did other people not notice and point it out?

This short story made such an impression on me that I'm definitely going to read McMann's Dream Catcher series (I've bought it for the library, I've just yet to read it).

"Out of the Blue" by Meg Cabot

There exists an entire generation of girls who have been literally raised on The Princess Diaries series, or the gagillion other Meg Cabot books which she's published to acclaim. This short story combines Cabot's signature sense of humor and cutting insight into teen relationship dynamics (the litigious psycho ex-girlfriend? Hilarious!). Cabot's whimsical and creepy tale is conveyed via interview transcripts clearly taken by "the men in black" about fraternal twins who have an encounter with a spaceship when they are six and then another, much more interesting one, when they are sixteen.

Meg Cabot has proven she can handle scifi and paranormal elements as demonstrated in her successful Abandon trilogy and the Mediator series, so it's not a surprise that she paints a creepy, dark antagonist who is all the more menacing (to say nothing of the looming and unnamed government agency questioning the kids) for the occasional injections of humor.

"One True Love" by Malinda Lo

No one can ever go wrong reading Lo (I was privileged to hear her speak at a YALSA pre-conference a few years ago), and this story lived up to my high expectations. With clearly strong ties to the Oedipus story, this work is set in a fantasy world with a princess prophesied to bring down her father the king at the time she meets her "one true love". Her heartless father sequesters her with a nursemaid for her entire life, bringing her out for royal events heavily veiled so there is no chance of her spotting a love interest or being seen by someone who might fall in love with her. When her father (who goes through wives like Kleenex), is awarded a new bride from a country negotiating peace terms, he sends the gorgeous young woman to the same tower as her daughter, who is about the same age.

Lo is renowned for her skillful handling of GLBTQ themes in young adult literature, but, while the princess falls in love with her father's young bride, this beautiful story felt to me like it was more about finding strength and power when you thought you had none. The transformation of the main character from an isolated royal to a young woman filled with the power of love was heartwarming and inspirational. Lo's writing was also sweet, strong and sensual and, as such, was a delight. Anyone who hasn't read her stunning book, Ash, or one of her many other novels, should pick them up immediately.

"This Is a Mortal Wound" by Michael Grant 

Michael Grant is the successful young adult author probably best known for his dystopian Gone series. With his facility with science fiction already established, it's unsurprising that he has chosen to include a story in this anthology set in the near future. As an educator, this storyline did make me REALLY uncomfortable, and - while I haven't known a teacher who has completely snapped - this was all too easy to believe!

This is a tale of a sadistic teacher set in a future where education is more dominated by technology than it is today. I did think it stretched the premise of "prophesy and prediction" although clearly it was meant to highlight the real future of education as needing to keep up with the fast pace of scientific discovery and change. I couldn't decide if I liked Tomaso or not, but I loved the climatic scene where his teacher gets her comeuppance as he proves to her that technology offers better quality information than his textbook. That said, the absence of an actual good teacher - one that has expertise and uses technology to help guide student learning - made me sad, but I'm sure this would be a cathartic short story for a student who has suffered with a horrible teacher (and, let's face it, we've all had at least one).

"Misery" by Heather Brewer

Chronicles of Vladimir Tod series
The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episodes I remember most as a child were the ones were protagonists found themselves in a strange town or surrounded by menacing neighbors. The show usually had some tremendous twist, a la Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," which would make me gasp. If I was lucky, it would possess enough of a resolution that I could go to sleep that night, not worrying about the fate of the characters.

Heather Brewer's short story instantly brought this scifi infatuation of mine to mind. Set in a mysterious town that no one could quite remember moving to, Alek awaits to hear of the "gift" the year would bring him, a gift predicted by the town psychic, Jordan. Jordan predicted the arrival of Alek's best friend, Sara, at a time when he was lonely, but he feels a tremendous weight bearing down on him; this year's gift might be more than what he bargained for.

"The Mind is a Powerful Thing" by Matt de la Pena

Joanna is a constantly worried sixteen-year-old. Despite celebrating her birthday with her close friends in West L.A., she nevertheless sees the worst around every corner and to her, the worst means assault and murder. After imbibing a little too much, the party gets out of control and Joanna might have irreparably damaged the one really good thing in her life.

I have a bunch of de la Pena's books in the library, but they are still on my "to-read" list. His unique voice was a refreshing change in the middle of this anthology and I loved the inclusion of Latina characters and an urban setting in a genre usually dominated by white protagonists. Diversity aside, however, I was wowed by how de la Pena conveys the idea of Joanna's paranoia, yet simultaneously gives you reason to believe she might just be worried for a valid reason. This duality kept me guessing and questioning my assumptions for the whole read. I love it when a good writer does that to me.

"The Chosen One" by Saundra Mitchell

Saundra Mitchell's fantasy story was a standout in this collection, largely due to her choice to have a scarred protagonist, yet show us this character's inner beauty from the beginning. Corvina may be the daughter of the king of Vernal, but she was born on the wrong side of the blanket and is relegated to be the servant of her legitmate sister, the stunning Lucia. Lucia is wonderful, however, and about to embark on a search for a fiancee worthy of her, so Corvina is all the more bereft when her sister falls prey to a virilent disease. Not content to stand by and do nothing, Corvina decides to embark on a quest to find a magical cup that could cure Lucia.

Isn't all good fantasy centered on an individual's quest? Corvina's fight through obstacles, her finding a handsome ally to aid her, and a wonderful resolution had me eagerly turning the pages of this tale. I know Mitchell has done paranormal and mystery, but has she done other fantasy? I'm dying for more.

"Improbable Futures" by Kami Garcia

I've only read Kami Garcia's work which she's written partnered with Margaret Stohl, so it was super to be able to hear her voice separate from that collaboration.

Ilana has been a carney since she was a child, destined to follow in her mother's footsteps to tell people their "fortunes" at the run down circus they've followed for her lifetime. She hates lying to people every night, but she does it, both because it is the only life she knows and because of the very real threat the owner poses to her. But one night, something happens to the prophecies Ilana tells her customers, and she never could have foreseen the results.

This tale was dark, dark, DARK and so rich with despair that I felt heavy after reading it. Yet I was delighted to see such a wonderful writer emerge on her own at the same time. Garcia has a new book coming out this year and this short story guarantees I'm buying it for the library.

"Death for the Deathless" by Margaret Stohl

Did you know that I actually have heard both Stohl and Garcia speak? They were a dynamic twosome during the same YALSA young adult literature presentation where I also heard Malinda Lo. Attendees actually got a copy of Beautiful Creatures as one of the take-away gifts for the workshop. I read it in one fell swoop on the plane and loved the gothic feel and strong Southern sense of place that pervaded the novel. The highly successful series established both Garcia and Stohl's reputations, so it's great to see them both writing on their own, yet enjoying each other's company in the same anthology.

If this short story doesn't become a full-fledged book or series, it's a waste of a terrific idea. Beginning in the dark recesses of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, we meet two immortals, Luc whose job it is to use the enigma machine to receive prophecies from an unknown dimension, and the beautiful Adrienne, who must communicate them, good or bad, to the head immortals. Sorcerers, vampires, and werewolves abound in this world, and when Luc receives a communication about death to immortals, he and Adrienne are terrified to see the repercussions when she delivers the message, and for good reason.

I loved that the POV switched between the two characters and this world is so rich and nuanced, it left me wanting much, much more. I hope I get it!

"Fate" by Simone Elkeles

I'm not sure I would have put a second short story which also alternates POV between the male and female protagonist, but Ryan did. Luckily the two stories couldn't be more different. While Stohl plays to her strengths (and established fan base) in paranormal romance, Elkeles knows her forte is undoubtedly contemporary YA romance and she delivers.

Carson is an eighteen-year-old recently homeless and from a rough background; his father is in jail and his mother abandoned him when he was young, seeing him sporadically but always with little commitment. A loan allows him to rent a run-down RV in a trailer park and while it's not much, it's home, even if it comes with a chattering sixteen-year-old redhead girl next door. Willow doesn't seem to know how to take a hint, but she is determined to help Carson and he discovers that maybe it's time he opened up a little after all.

Sweet romance but it felt highly compressed to me - I would have enjoyed this in a longer book!

"The Killing Garden" by Carrie Ryan

Carrie Ryan was on the cusp of the zombie resurgence in YA literature and her books always kept me wide awake waiting for the pandemic that would turn us all into cannibals. I think she has an ability to draw a world that has you believing this could be yours under different circumstances, a chilling view of alternate history that is the fuel of nightmares.

While there are no zombies in this short story, the premise is equally as frightening. Tanci is the first female heir born to a long line of gardeners to the emperor, and her birth is a tremendous disappointment to her father, who does not feel she will be strong enough to carry on his legacy. Not just in charge of the elaborate royal gardens, the gardener is also responsible for weeding the court of enemies and threats, a weeding that consists of racing the condemned through the gardens and then strangling the accused on the execution platform.

Tanci trains her entire young life, casting aside any doubts and toughening her body. When she proves her strength, beating her father at the age of fifteen, she feels that there should be more than the numb emptiness she carries. But she doesn't really begin to question her role until she comes in contact with a particular prisoner who has her rethinking her vocation.

What chills you to the bone about this story is a society in which a teenage executioner is completely accepted and how Tanci can divorce herself from any doubts or feelings and make her work merely a test of skill and strength, even as she snuffing out the life of another person. Ryan's pacing is pitch perfect, so much so that this story gives the impression of a longer novella as it takes the reader on its main character's emotional journey.

"Homecoming" by Richelle Mead

Finally, the story I actually purchased the book to read! I am a gigantic fan of the Vampire Academy series and it's companion Bloodlines series (The Indigo Spell #3 is coming out on February 12, 2013!). In all of YA literature (and most of adult romance), I defy you to come up with a hotter male lead than Dimitri Belikov. YOU CANNOT DO IT. I've got lots of teenage readers backing me up on this, people, trust me (and a few adult ones, as well).

After Rose Hathaway, the protagonist of the Vampire Academy series helps free Dimitri of his Strigoi fate (and they have an eventual happily ever after, at least enough that the Bloodlines series can begin), you next "see" them in Bloodlines, getting Jill settled in with her Alchemist handler, Sydney, our protagonist for that series. I knew, somewhere along the line, that Rose and Dimitri must have gone back to Siberia to visit his family. Rose's time in that landscape with the Belikov's were some of the most moving emotional scenes of the series as she wrestled with her grief and the knowledge that she had promised to hunt him down, and I wanted to see them all again.

I was not disappointed. Not only did I revel in seeing my two badass lovebirds together in Russia but it was wonderful to see all of Dimitri's relatives, even his witch grandmother, the cryptic Yeva. Yeva annoys Rose once again (Yeva claims she new that Rose would be Dimitri's salvation, information Rose would have enjoyed having prior to trying to hunt him down and kill him) when an Alchemist arrives to tell them about a dangerous Strigoi nearby, the Blood King. The Alchemist convinces Rose and Dimitri to try and rid the area of this menace as so many humans are getting killed. Naturally, they head off to do just that.

Rose and Dimitri are just as fabulous a couple as they always were and Mead has chosen to showcase them at their loving best - fighting Strigoi. This is a story which will not disappoint fans of the series, particularly with all the hints that Dimitri is set on convincing Rose to marry him.

So Who Wins the Blue Ribbon?

With fourteen short stories, I feel like I should at least highlight the best quality stories in this anthology. Naturally, my favorite is Mead's "Homecoming" but I'm willing to admit that someone who was unfamiliar with the Vampire Academy series would not get as much out of this story as I have (although I think they'd be tempted to read more of the series). "One True Love" by Malinda Lo and Saundra Mitchell's "The Chosen One" are stellar examples of strong female fantasy characters. Margaret Stohl's "Death for the Deathless" has also been staying with me for days, and I really do have my fingers crossed that this is a precursor to a series.

Carrie Ryan should get a bruise from patting herself on the back for this collection. She has successfully corralled some of the best quality writers in the young adult genre, building a terrific anthology of short stories which delivers to readers, not only an excellent taste of each of these authors, but also fourteen compelling emotional journeys.

I hope I can prophesy that she'll do this again for us.

Inspiring Writers: The Night of Writing Dangerously

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One of the most important parts of successful library program relates to serendipity. By being among students in unscripted settings (for me, it's sitting out at the desk with kids casually hanging out at our "information bar"), I hear their interests and can bounce ideas off of them. I think of it as my "daily zeitgeist" reading.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with the head of our creative writing group (a group who are resurrecting our school's defunct literary magazine). A bunch of my writers are taking part in National Novel Writing Month, known to devotees as NaNoWriMo, where participants pledge to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. Impressive, yes?

I was exploring the site's companion Young Writer's Program as well as the main site and reveling in all the information. Granted my teenagers seemed to fall between the YWP and the adult version of the program, but the flyers and free supplemental materials were terrific (awesome Facebook banner, anyone?). That's when I stumbled on "The Night of Writing Dangerously."

Seemingly meant as both a motivator to write in a party-like atmosphere and as a fundraiser for the nonprofit that runs NaNoWriMo, The Night of Writing Dangerously seemed to have food, fun and writing all in one package. Why couldn't we have a writing party at school? When the kids and I began talking, we quickly made the connection to the fact that November is the end of our fall term semester - and it's crunch time for a lot seniors working with December 1st college deadlines. This was one event that could combine creative writers, kids working on term papers, and our college-bound seniors in one fell swoop.

It was just crazy enough to work. I bought some prizes from the NaNoWriMo website which was for the creative writers at the party (so popular!!) and contacted by Director of Student Life since this would be a nighttime student activity. He said that end of term activities the weekend before exam week were always tough to plan since we want kids to relax but also don't want to distract them from studying, so this fit the bill. He was happy to provide the pizza and soft drinks and I would handle the sweet stuff.

Anyone who knows me is aware that I take sugar very seriously. "Teenager" is synonymous with "hungry wolf-like human who loves chocolate" in my opinion and I have enough of an established reputation as a baker to draw kids in. But I wanted to make this extra special and pull out the stops. We had a sign up sheet (exclusivity gives it a little more cachet and helps you predict how much food to make) and I was astonished to have 60 kids sign up in two days! I actually had to turn people away since more than 60 kids makes the library kind of zooey. I could have easily added 10 more students if my library could have accommodated them. Here's what to make for 60 kids:

Because I wanted to make sure everyone who came understood they needed to work, I built off of NaNoWriMo's idea of "Guilt Monkeys". In actuality, I have no idea what the heck these are, but my local NaNoWriMo leader threatened people with them. I decided to create Guilt Monkey stickers (Avery label 22807) that we would slap on people if they weren't working. Three Guilty Monkeys and you were out of the library. Kids loved the Guilt Monkeys so much (I only gave out two and each to a different person) that they actually asked to have one to keep at the end of the night, which made me laugh.

The night was incredible. To see between 50 and 60 students diligently working on their writing projects on a Friday night from 6 pm to 10 pm was so gratifying and they seemed to love having the opportunity to work. We took a break midway through to run around the library (literally - see below video) and then got back to business. I interviewed the kids between helping students, so here's the video of their feedback about the night (it's about fourteen minutes).

I think we will definitely do this at the end of each semester - I might be ready to collapse from all the baking but it was so helpful (this number of kids represent about 15% of our school population) that I can't deprive them of this opportunity.

I'm glad that NaNoWriMo managed to inspire me to reach out to all kinds of writers and that I have a student body willing to immerse themselves in the fun of a work night. I ended up having a ball with all the sugared up enthusiasm floating around and cheerfully look forward to future Nights of Writing Dangerously.

Libba Bray Channels the Lost Generation in Her New Paranormal Series, The Diviners

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The Diviners (The Diviners #1) by Libba Bray
It's not a gigantic secret that I love Libba Bray. Like "light candles to her image" kind of love. She's brainy, funny and a brilliant writer, as evidenced by not only her kick-ass historical paranormal Gemma Doyle series, but also such amazing books as Beauty Queens and Going Bovine. I loved Libba Bray before Libba Bray was cool.

So when I heard over a year ago that she was writing a new series, inspired by 1920s icons like Zelda Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker, I practically wept with happiness. If anyone could capture the zeitgeist of the era and employ her brand of funny and poignant, it was Libba.

Why did it take me until page 180 to really begin to like this book then?

There were a couple of reasons. First, this book is dark and I mean DARK. No one is a happy person in this book and Libba Bray does the best job of capturing the frenetic attitude and sense of doom which characterized the Lost Generation since F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But these brittle, jaded, impossibly sad people don't make it easy to connect with them. Evie, the main character, jangles the nerves with her flippant flapper slang and odor of desperation as she tries to drink herself into oblivion, succumbing to the need for attention with her "gift" of reading objects which reveal their owner's secrets to her. It got her kicked out of her hometown in Ohio, and she's much more content to be spending her exile in Manhattan with a preoccupied uncle who runs an unsuccessful museum of the occult.

The U.K. version of the cover
While I struggled to like Evie (I finally warmed up to her around that page 180 when she started to show she had a brain investigating the mystery), I was also initally distracted by all the other characters in the book. Once again, you have to patiently wade through the first 200 pages before we begin to see below their surface, but the three-dimensional quality Bray endows them with is worth it. Memphis, the Harlem numbers runner trying to care for his younger brother; Theta, the stunning Ziegfield girl who lives in the same building as Evie and has a violent past; Uncle Will, a professor running a strange museum who seems to understand all too well the mysterious happenings going on; Mabel, the neglected daughter of radicals who tries to be good but is tempted by Evie and Theta's jazz baby ways; Jericho, Uncle Will's faithful assistant whose stolid demeanor hides an incredible secret; and Sam, the pickpocket fascinated by Evie who has an agenda of his own, namely finding the mother stolen from him as a boy.

Because all of these people, and many of the equally as well-drawn secondary characters, are "diviners" or people with supernatural abilities who will be crucial in the upcoming conflict, although we really don't know what form that storm will take, even after almost 600 pages. The last 400 pages of the book contain a real rip-snorter of a mystery (now that the foundation for the time period and character basics are laid) and, since I imagine that this series is at least a trilogy, that first third of the book is probably a reasonable dedication of resources.

Spanish language version
Let me tell you, there is some kind of a creepy mystery involved. A cult, gruesome murders described in detail, and the further unraveling of each characters abilities send nonstop chills down your spine. Alongside the mystery, we finally go in depth with each character, getting a sense of what makes them tick and, as in all her books, Libba Bray does not shy away from reality for her YA audience.

Theta's abuse is clearly detailed and as the attraction between her and Memphis ramps up, it's clear in this era that this budding romance could end in tremendous racial violence. The distrust of government - as seen through the eyes of Sam, whose mother is part of the mysterious Project Buffalo (to be explained in more detail in a future book) and Jericho who was literally made a human experiment, as well as the sinister blind man, Bill, who seems to have had repeated exposure to an early version of "Men in Black" - actually fits the tone of the Lost Generation post-WWI era perfectly.

Librarians: this book is going to be a hot property when the new The Great Gatsby film comes out in 2013 and everything twenties becomes new again. Libba Bray's research is meticulous and exhaustive and it shows - every detail is so pitch-perfect for this era that I just sat there, utterly dazzled reading all these amazing references. The afterword in the book says that the companion website to the series would have a bibliography, but I couldn't find one at this point on there.

This book possesses Libba Bray's usual writing skill, particularly in the historical details and slow reveal of character depths, and I'm going to definitely read the next book in the series, particularly after seeing how the book progressed in pacing. The story arc laid is sufficiently fascinating that I think this series has a lot of potential to live up to her reputation. I'm glad I stuck it out through those first 200 pages!
Book trailer from Little, Brown & Co

Beth Revis Gives Me a Kick in the Pants, YA Literature Style

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I've been feeling guilty. While I've been keeping up with all my professional reading, I've been horribly neglecting my YA literature as anyone who follows me on Goodreads can attest. I've got a separate Goodreads account for my all my racier romance and mystery books, but naturally I want to keep it professional since kids like to follow teachers on that social reading network.

Well, I've read 529 mystery and romance books, and while some of them are totally appropriate for my teenagers (and I've recommended them and gotten them for the library where they've been devoured), clearly I've not been doing a good job of dividing my attention appropriately. Thankfully, award-winning author Beth Revis, author of the YA science fiction Across the Universe trilogy, is reminding me of all the great books out there that I have yet to read.

She's offering a dazzling selection of autographed YA books as a prize (which I would love to give as prizes to my kids if I win) that highlight some of the most outstanding quality literature to be published in the last year or two. Thankfully, I've read several, but it's a good reminder of all the well-reviewed books out there I need to read.

So thanks, Beth, for offering such a treasure trove to one of your readers, but more importantly, for getting me back on the ball where I belong!

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Celebrating International Games Day in the Library

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A portion of our board games collection.
A few months ago I read the American Libraries Association announcement that Saturday, November 3rd was International Games Day, and it made a significant enough impression that I wrote it in my Google calendar and contacted the new (and very collaborative) Director of Student Activities to see what he thought. This just screamed "ready made library program" to me since, hey, I was prescient enough to have the Wii and a ton of board games. Would the kids go for it?

Heck, yeah, they did and I'm sure a big piece of the adolescent welcome those games received was due to the fact that my students are mentally fried - we have one more week of class prior to fall term exam week and this week was only three days long because of us being shut down for Hurricane Sandy. While most of our day student families escaped personal injury, there was still a ton of cleanup with some people having days without power. People who don't work at a school always think that it must be cushy to have days off, but I've got news for them - when it's not a planned vacation day, you end up doing five days of work in those three days of school (this is true for both students and faculty!).

Pictionary, and its high-octane sister, Cranium are popular.
So board games on a Friday afternoon were just what the doctor ordered for these overtaxed synapses; my kids leaped on the games like starving wolves when the final period concluded and they saw the boxes and the Wii all set up in one of my classrooms (playing until after 6 pm).

First to go was Monopoly, which ended up being an eight-person extravaganza complete with good-natured smack talk! Pictionary and Scrabble were next, my Wii controllers were snatched up for a waterboarding fiesta, and the noisy rustle of Boggle (with a lot of laughing) ensued in the corner. My new favorite game, Quelph, was purchased by the Activities Director (be sure you have a high embarrassment threshold prior to playing this one!

Over 45 kids ended up relaxing over games in one form or another, and it was one of the easiest programs I ever administered. No food, no direction on my part, just friendly encouragement to the kids and the occasional walk around to take a picture or two. Minor effort on my part and over 10% of my student population entertained.

One startling surprise was that the Activities Director, genius that he is, also picked up a 550-piece jigsaw puzzle and it was a HUGE hit. Kids were talking about having a puzzle club since they loved sitting and working together on different portions, high-fiving and cheering when one of them saw a way to fit sections together. I'm wondering if the best collaboration would be for libraries in a given county or consortium to each buy four or five puzzles (the 500+ pieces ones can be found for under $10 online and at places like Kmart or toy stores) and then rotate them around. Garage sale divas could probably find amazing bargains, but I'd always worry that there would be pieces missing - maybe if you could find unopened boxes?

In reflection, there is no way I won't be doing Games Day, and more frequently than once a year. This provided a relaxing, cheap way for my library to use resources it had already and de-stress my student population. A perfect ending to a rough week!

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Paint Your Nails Pink in Honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Library Programming

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When I realized during my Hunger Games Party last spring that the nail art table was the most popular craft, the thought occurred to me that this was an ideal library program. Okay, yes, it's a bit stinky with the acetate and nail polish fumes, but usually no one minds and the fun the kids have (and associate with the library) goes a long way to making students feel the library is a comfortable, welcoming place to spend their non-nail polishing time.

Every October, one of my wonderful colleagues - who is a teacher, athletic trainer, class dean and dorm parent, no less - takes in upon herself to organize our school's Breast Cancer Awareness fundraisers during the month of October. This fundraising has at its center the selling of that year's t-shirt, which the students can wear on a set day and dress down, always a welcome break from dress code.

I wanted to make sure that the library had some kind of tie-in programming that would ramp the kids up and encourage them to buy their t-shirt. Having a bunch of supplies left over from the Hunger Games nail art table (like the OPI drying spray, which is pricey but a must-have and it lasts forever), I realized while browsing in my local Ulta that I could easily drop $30 dollars on pink nail polish and have a snazzy little programming afternoon (and supplies for the future). The store was having an October special where if you purchased two pink OPI polishes you would get a free top coat or base coat, so I choose six shades of pink (Japanese Rose Garden and Pinking of You were popular favorites) and got my freebies. Piles of pink Watermelon Jolly Ranchers to snack on and we had a fun party in progress!

The terrific aspect of doing a nail program is that you don't have to be an expert about the technique. I rely heavily upon sites like Pinterest for nail art boards which possess oodles of inspiration and links to the actual sites that contain the DIY components. With the addition of glass head pins and toothpicks to your program, and/or nail art pens if you want to get fancy with effects. I was amazed at how many students used the toothpicks and pins I had left over from previous craft programming to make this terrific breast cancer ribbons on their nails.

I know that other librarians will instantly note that anything involving nail polish is programming that leans heavily to our female patrons. Since so many students had expressed an interest, I still felt it was a good idea and I was pleasantly surprised to see plenty of boys. Granted most of them were watching and flirting with the girls, but more than a few boys were cajoled into having a single nail painted pink since it was "for breast cancer awareness."

When our Lower School bus let out at the Upper School campus, a bunch of little kids (faculty children) joined us, and since a bunch of the high school students present were babysitters for these little ones, the energy really jacked up a notch. The little girls LOVED having their nails done by the big girls and were particularly entranced by the nail art and sparkle effects that some of the students brought to the party. I asked a bunch of kids if they would put their hands out so we could capture all the pretty nails, and I love the picture (left) which was the result. Little hands and big hands, with lots of different skin tones, but all perfectly showcasing the pink. Over 40 students (out of a 420 student population) ended up having their nails done and they are still talking about how much fun it was. I'm going to have to think up other tie-ins (like Halloween nails for Teen Read Week 2012) that let my nail creators to express themselves.

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Book Review: For Russian History Buffs, The Gathering Storm by Robin Bridges

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I was probably not a normal teenager.  (Is there such a thing?) While my friends were reading Judy Blume, I was reading Robert K. Massie's page-turning nonfiction work, Nicholas and Alexandra, along with a lot of other history.  Monarchs were my focus, and if they had a connection to Queen Victoria, then so much the better.

Even I didn't have this historical reading background, I'm honestly not sure I would have been as involved with Robin Bridges' new work, The Gathering Storm.  The Russian monarchy and aristocracy, particularly as it intersects with other European royal families, is pretty complicated, to say nothing of mastering the naming nomenclature and understanding who is who.  Bridges doesn't shy away from describing multiple members of the Romanov family and the intricately related members of the aristocracy, and I definitely relied on my background knowledge to escape confusion.

That caution aside, I thought her depiction of late 19th century aristocratic Russia to be outstandingly accurate in reference to the nonfiction I've enjoyed about the period, but Bridges takes this interest a step further by adding in a paranormal element.  This addition works incredibly well since the mysticism that is such a part of Russian culture of this time lends a dark and sinister quality to reading about these historical figures (hello, Rasputin anyone?). 

 In 1888, Katerina Alexandrova, Duchess of Oldenberg, is a pretty debutante in one of the most exclusive finishing schools in St. Petersburg, but she has aspirations to become a doctor, a goal supported by her loving father and reviled by her mother who would like to see her married well.  Unknown to her family is a dark secret Katerina has kept since she was a child.  She can raise the dead.

Like so many paranormal protagonists, she decides to go the denial route for a little while, but naturally it backfires as her coming out to society exposes her to powerful figures with an understanding of magic.  To these individuals, Katerina's dark power is obvious and she finds herself first being judged by the handsome but critical Grand Duke George Alexandrovich, the tsar's son, no stranger to magic himself.  She also discovers that several prominent friends of the family also have magical alliances and vampires exist (although necromancers like Katerina are extremely rare) at the highest levels.  Despite evidence being stacked against her, it becomes apparent that Katerina loves her tsar and wants to help however she can, even if her power frightens her as much as the people who want to control her.

Having a leg up on the history and naming piece made me understand some of the subtleties of what was going on (like how Tsarevitch Nicholas will undoubtedly end up with Princess Alix).  There were a few pieces that bothered me in the reading.  At one point while in the hospital, the nurse comes in to hang another bag of plasma.  Um...really?  In 1888?  I know that transfusions would have been common but I can't find a lot of evidence which supports that the separation of plasma took place often in this time period, to say nothing of plasma transfusions being routinely given until World War I.  Maybe they were, but I can guarantee that if the M*A*S*H episodes I watch in reruns still are using glass bottles, I'm betting late 19th century Russia would be using a similar technology.  Because the book is written solely from Katerina's perspective, the romance between her and George feels a little uneven but I still think he is royally cute.  I'll be interested to see how far she sticks to his actual life.  Is he going to do the royal yacht tour with his brother the tsarevitch in 1890?  Will he still die mysteriously in a motorcycle accident in 1899 or will it be magic related?  The possibilities are endless.

The second book in the trilogy has a release date of October 9, 2012, and the cover for The Unfailing Light is even more beautiful than the first book.   Katerina is bound for medical school but must stay home and spend another year at finishing school because of a supernatural threat to the tsar that only she can help repel.  The dark forces battling for power want to not only topple him but also use her in their bid for supremacy.

Bridges' blog (also published to the front page of her website and to her Goodreads account) and she posts regularly on her Facebook account.  I'm looking forward to following her work and see how this trilogy lends a new perspective on Russian history.

Book Review: A Treatment of Faith or Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

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I have been waiting to read this book for two years.  How can that be?  I heard Melissa Walker back in 2010 talk about the concept of basing a book around the evangelical Christian concept of Hell Houses and how that event could be a catalyst for a protagonist's personal growth.  Having just watched a documentary about Hell Houses at the time, I was reeling at just how the beliefs and passions of evangelical teens get channeled through this medium.

Small Town Sinners is a brilliantly written novel about the moment when a teenager begins to move away from their family, bonds with their peers and begins to undertake the important work of questioning what is important in their lives in order to understand what they, not their parents, believe.  Lacey Anne Byer lives as the dutiful daughter of a preacher and his wife, but at the age of 16 and on the cusp of her junior year, she is poised to find an opportunity to be in the limelight for once.  She believes that her church's upcoming Hell House is the opportunity she needs, by trying out for the most difficult part, "abortion girl."

A suicide scene from a Hell House
Hell Houses, for those of you who don't know, are many evangelical churches answer to traditional Halloween haunted houses.  While they originally took various incarnations, by the 1990s, many churches (and later the huge mega-churches or parachurches) particularly in the West began putting on complex, themed Hell Houses, which take visitors via a guide through a variety of staged vignettes depicting "sins" such as homosexuality, abortion, suicide, premarital sex, and occultism.  At the end of the tour, visitors are usually presented with a scene of hell and suffering and then taken into (or given the choice to enter) an all white serene environment in which church and youth leaders ask each individual if they are ready to accept Jesus Christ or consider learning more about fundamentalist Christianity.

Melissa Walker, who as a writer has shown a tremendous amount of diversity with the topics she has tackled (some light and fun and others deep), had pitched the concept of Hell Houses as a magazine article she wanted to write.  She interviewed dozens of various teenagers involved in this life and with various perspectives on their faith and felt that their voices and personalities resonated so much with her that she decided to write a book showing what it would be like to wrestle with faith in a modern world.

I think the reason that I was so wowed by this book was because Lacey Anne was a compelling voice.  Often quieter characters in YA literature are either painfully shy or about to undergo some huge personality change and unleash their inner extrovert, but Lacey was terrific just the way she was.  Yes, she was interested in showing what she was capable of in testing her limits with her acting for the Hell House but was essentially the same thoughtful, observant person she always was.

When Ty Davis moves into town, Lacey is drawn to him and he to her.  Ty was a FABULOUS love interest.  He belongs to the same church as Lacey (his aunt is the church librarian) but he has a mysterious past.  Ty models to Lacey that she can question the inconsistencies or hypocrisy of the people around them who all espouse the ideals of Christianity (but who often fall short of that goal) including Lacey's parents.  He's not disrespectful, nor is Lacey's having faith ever in question, but the message is more button Lacey's father takes up on the bulletin board "Love is the Answer...Now what is the question?"

Walker is a special author (and a great speaker, FYI) who has really mastered how an author can have a successful online presence.  Her Facebook page has regular posts (and not just about upcoming books) and her blog is well-written and often showcases other excellent authors.  She also contributes regularly to the Readergirlz blog, which is another great resource I have in my RSS reader which helps me keep up with the latest and greatest in books.  I'm sure most libraries have a copy of this book, but for kindle owners, keep in mind the Kindle edition is only $2.51!  Bargain!

Love Your Library: A Valentine's Day Library Event

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The Information Bar of Kirby Library Post-Valentine's Day
I am a big proponent of catching people doing something right - I like it when my colleagues and supervisors do it to me and I love the blush of recognition students get when you let them know how much you admire them for something they are doing.  So why not have an event whose sole purpose is thanking your patrons?

For me, an obvious day was Valentine's Day.  February 14th is designated "Love Your Library" day at Wyoming Seminary's Upper School (yes, we wear pink or red at the desk).  If students, faculty or staff want to come over to the library and fill out a heart about what they love best, the library thanks them by giving them a fresh-baked cookie (mostly chocolate chip, but I do make a batch of oatmeal craisin for the people who don't like chocolate or are allergic). 

My kitchen prior to beginning - 200 cookies were made in 3 hours
I will admit, the cookie baking is not an insignificant undertaking.  Luckily, as a boarding school veteran I have developed an excellent system of cranking out large quantities of cookies in a relatively compressed period of time (so I can go to sleep before midnight).  My chocolate chip cookies are really popular, so I focus on those, with just one batch of oatmeal for the people with allergies.  I made about 200 cookies this time, and they were all gone by the end of school, so I probably could have made 240 and it would have been perfect for the after school crowd as well, but I ran out of chocolate chips! 

Publicity is important to any well-attended event and word of mouth among teenagers is total gold for publicizing library events.  I had one of my LAB seniors make an announcement the day before and I also emailed and hung up flyers (which you can view for yourself on my Google Docs).  Just using pale pink and lavender paper, I printed out simple hearts with a question: "Why do you love the library?" (Important note: be sure you only print as many hearts as there are cookies - that way the end of valentines directly correlates with no more cookies and you don't run out.)

This could seem like asking the kids to jump through a hoop to just get a cookie, but we actually collect these and use them as data to take an informal read on our program.  My golden retriever usually wins the most mentions, paws down (you can see one of our student's rendition of him looking up at me reading a book, something I never get to do in the library) but usually my fellow librarian and I are a close second (and we don't have big egos, so the dog being ahead of us is fine).

Points I noticed this year that seemed unusual from other years where the notice of the "ambiance" of the library or the "warmth" of the library and I'm thinking this was related to more adjectives to describe our professional staff ("helpful librarians" or "friendly librarians"). 

Our kids are wonderful at our school (really, I'm not making this up - I know that I am lucky, almost every one of the 200 kids who did a valentine thanked me so politely when they took their cookie, or they enthusiastically spoke about how much they were looking forward to eating it!).  You can see from this valentine (bullet points seemed another theme and we thought it was super that kids had so much to say they wanted to make a list!) that we were nicely listed first, followed by the books (our circulation has been up this year), then my dog, then the cookies (so impressed those weren't first), then "friends".

The "friends" part is of particular interest - this came up on a few valentine's or "the great people who hang out here" was listed as the reason the person loved the library.  And that begs a point I'd like to make about creating a welcoming library environment.  If a library space becomes identified with one group of students, it can become exclusionary as students who do not include themselves in that category decide the library isn't for them.  Several valentines mentioned the "ambiance" or "stress-free environment" of the library as the main reason why they loved.

The blizzard of valentines on our Center Classroom glass
We often say that the library has a "no-guilt" relationship with students - we don't charge fines, we don't believe in a quiet library, we don't block or forbid certain websites or games (just wear headphones if it's noisy), and we are happy to proofread papers or listen to a student vent about their romantic relationship gone awry.  Our theory is that students who are comfortable hanging out in the space to relax with friends and warmly banter with us when they get a laptop from the cart behind the desk, is going to understandably be more comfortable coming to us with an academic problem or question.  "We don't judge" would be a possible t-shirt logo for us.

Anyway, Love Your Library is always a huge success.  We gave out every one of the 200 cookies and had that equal number of valentines hanging up - all by 2 pm.  Reading the valentines became a spectator sport with faculty and students munching their cookie while they walked around to look at all of them.  

A few administrators stopped by (actually to schedule classes) so it was nice for them to see the reasons students gave for loving our program.  While it's a lot of work to crank out all those cookies, I think making our students feel great about using the library and having a recognition party where all participants are thinking about why the library is so terrific, makes the sweat and tears well worth it.

Every Reader's (Urban?) Fantasy: The Vampire Stalker by Allison Van Diepen

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Sometimes I read books that I think are under the radar of other librarians or YA readers and it's so sad.  It's not that I mind reading yet another review of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, but I occasionally get the impression that there are only twenty top young adult novels and everyone is talking about them.  I appreciate having a short list of must-reads, but the aspect of young adult literature I enjoy the most is that it is a consistently good subset of the publishing industry.  So what about the quietly good books that are popping up less on the blogosphere?

The Vampire Stalker by Allison Van Diepen is definitely one of these little gems.  I know, I know.  You are thinking, "NO, Sassy Librarian, I cannot handle ONE MORE BOOK about vampires!"  Fear not, because despite the title vampires barely factor into this novel.  No elaborate world building, creation backstory, or sparkling, I promise.

The protagonist is incredibly easy for any reader to identify with.  Amy lives in Chicago in a small apartment with her mother and her bitchy younger sister who is acting out since their dad left them for a younger woman.  With her two best friends, Amy is a huge fan of the Otherworld series, which takes place in a dark, alternate Chicago populated by vampires preying on humans.  One of the heroes of the series, Alexander Banks, is a brooding but honorable vampire hunter who is bent on destroying the vampire Vigo, who slaughtered his family when Alex was a child.

While her friends are jonesing for Alexander's good friend James, the non-violent peacemaker bent on healing rifts between humans and vampires, Amy's heart belongs to Alexander.  She understands that he's a character in a book series but can't believe how well-drawn he is.  When she is attacked on her way home, a handsome young man rescues her and after some initial disbelief, she realizes he is her Alexander.  Unfortunately, the incredibly strong, fast blond guy who attacked her is Vigo and both of them came through a portal between their worlds under a Chicago bridge.

As he realizes that this Chicago is different from his own, Alexander grows closer to Amy who does a good job hiding how dazzled she is and just focuses on helping him find Vigo.  Ms. P, Amy's school librarian, plays a prominent role in both believing and helping Alexander, and I loved seeing the way Alexander begins to express his attraction for Amy using the code of his more proper and restrictive world.

Author Allison Van Diepen
I've been buying Allison Van Diepen's books for the library for years - Street Pharm, Snitch, and Raven, among others - but hadn't read any of them (I've since checked out Raven).  I can understand why The Vampire Stalker ended up on so many urban fantasy lists.  First, a definition of urban fantasy.  Urban fantasy is often confused with paranormal romance and while a romance might be part of the subplot (or even a rather largeish part of the main plot), the main point of an urban fantasy is that a healthy part of the story happens in an urban (city) environment and that paranormal elements are present in the story.  Protagonists find themselves possessing special skills which prove useful as they find themselves involved in some type of battle/war between paranormal elements.  Urban fantasy doesn't necessarily mean the present day - it can also include books set in the past (Victorian London, for example).  I have noticed that it's almost a requirement that urban fantasy be written in the first person.  Usually this is a conceit which makes me CRAZY, but in this genre it really works.

Familiar young adult examples include Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments series or P. C. and Kristen Cast's House of Night books (which people consider YA but has enough sexual content that libraries need to know their audience before putting them in a teen section).  Adult urban fantasy standouts would be Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely series (which people say are YA, but I think they are so dark and delicious that they are totally adult section-worthy) and the ever wonderful Night Huntress series by Jeaniene Frost (yay, Cat and Bones!).

It makes sense that with Van Diepen being known for the gritty realism of troubled teens lives in Street Pharm and Snitch, that she would be able to rock the urban fantasy vibe.  The Vampire Stalker is an excellent gentle introduction into this genre since our protagonist doesn't have special powers but instead aids her literary hero in their battle against the escaped vampire. I like Van Diepen's writing style - her voice for Amy is sympathetic and her writing efficient since she paints strong supplemental characters with just a few strokes.  Amy was bookish, but not a geek and she had friends with varying interests.  It's obvious Van Diepen is a real teacher since she doesn't fall into the trope of having every kid be part of a defined clique.

If there is any criticism I can have of the author, it's that she seems very busy - unlike other YA authors who have published as much as she has, Allison Van Diepen appears to have spend less time on promoting The Vampire Stalker, with the blog tours and accompanying information on her website a little on the skimpy side.  I was intrigued to see her inspiration for this book in a brief interview.  She was watching the A-ha video "Take on Me" which (amidst its delicious 80s cheese) features the band members having a book character come to life, and wondered what that would look like in a novel.  Watch more videos, Allison!!

I think Allison Van Diepen is an author to promote and to watch.  She clearly offers consist writing, good romance subplots, and sympathetic characters that any reader would enjoy.  For more information, take a look at her Goodreads page, her Facebook page or follow her Twitter feed.
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