Because We Do Judge Books By Their Covers: Canva and Its Role in Library Branding

Background public domain image via Pixabay;
created by Courtney Lewis using Canva

It's a pet peeve of mine when it comes to libraries, mainly because the majority of libraries (public, school, academic, you name it) have atrocious signage. The endcaps signage indicating call numbers looks like it came from the Exxon station around the corner from my house in the 1980s, where the 17-year-old gas attendant in his Metallica t-shirt would painstakingly change the price each morning using a pole and those plastic letters. Most library signs are a triumph of our Microsoft Word abilities, tasting of the 1990s even if we troop out Helvetica for our bold, colored keywords or *shudders* employ Comic Sans to show how hip and now and happening we are. The truly egregious signs utilize clip art and have one of those forbidden red circles with the slash over said clip art. To paraphrase someone else from decades long past, "Clip art is sooooo 1997."

Did you ever wonder why we can't shake the cat's eye glasses and mean librarian stereotype? Hold on to your sensible cardigan, but often it's due to the language and style of our signs, which reflect an outdated library culture where librarians were guardians of the warehouse of knowledge rather than the current servant leaders of the people who use their library. Not everyone talks to the library staff each day, and even if they do, one friendly face in a sea of "Don't!" signs isn't going to stem the tide. The Annoyed Librarian wrote a very pithy Library Journal article about just this phenomenon and the unstated messages your patrons absorb. The Library Lost & Found blog highlighted library signs bordering on the ridiculous (if not crossing that line - how much headphone cord chewing actually happens and wouldn't it be better to just say something?). These signs librarians blushingly laugh over aren't just horrible, they are also downright ugly and dated looking.

A flyer for a popular program made with Pages
Message aside (I'll get to that later), in peddling dated imagery, how are we supposed to be taken seriously as technology and programming leaders if the images that represent us are so forgettable? When Apple released Pages in 2010 with its slick flyers designed by turtleneck-wearing graphic designers, I was elated...until I ran out of different flyer options and had to begin recycling them (taking great care to have four different Pages posters per recurring event so my students would never realize as they had graduated prior to my reuse).

A simple but elegant daily schedule,
branded with the school logo and library name using Canva
Thank heavens that Canva arrived on the scene just when I was at risk as being exposed as a very unhip sign designer. Not only are there a variety of fabulous designs (both free and some with a small fee attached), but it's ridiculously easy to upload pubic domain and personally generated images to replace backgrounds. Fonts are plentiful and there are text shapes and colors that would take me wielding some serious Photoshop prowess (that I don't have) to produce. Canva often whimsically refers to its "elves" and after looking at how many products they help you produce, I'd say there are about 100 of them, all with degrees from Pratt or the Rhode Island School of Design shining above them. Thank you, elves!

I not only like the ease of use of the site and the fact that so much of it is completely free, but I love the fact that it's more functional to the work of a modern librarian than other programs. Not only can I produce signage to be posted around my library, but it's insanely easy to create Twitter and Facebook banners as well as gorgeous infographics. I don't need to remember the pixel size of anything because they've already done the heavy lifting, meaning that keeping a consistent look to my library brand is easy and the results are gorgeous (like in the case of this blog banner and my Twitter header, both produced in Canva). Special event requiring a 24 x 36 inch poster? Want to create a kick-butt presentation background that people haven't seen before? They've got a template to use. I've yet to find a need Canva can't fill for me and I get showered with compliments, which I deflect to the site. And the time I save is spent on working with teachers and students, i.e., the important parts of my job, not swearing sotto voce at Pages or Word.
But what does this have to do with our work as librarians? A library should reflect both the people who use it and the attitude of the people who work in it. Aaron Schmidt put it best when phrasing the idea of signage in the context of the overall user experience. My preference is that the signage in my school library be colorful, fun and informative, as well as geared toward the girls who attend my school. Think about branding, whether it be repeating logos, using the same key colors (your school colors are a given as long as they are attractive!), and/or maintaining friendly yet directive language. Someone is far more likely to remember your message if they smile about it than if they frown.

Smiling patrons are also more likely to help you shift your library's culture (if it needs shifting). We do battle that mean, shushy librarian stereotype, every day, whether we realize it or not. The media loves it too much to ever let it go, as documentaries like The Hollywood Librarian show us, even while offering up dynamic examples of the current profession. This means that each one of us is potentially a change agent, whether we are actively altering our library culture in order to serve our population better, or if we are working within a dynamic and responsive library but are faced with individual patrons who have an outdated perception of librarians and libraries that needs altering.

Signage is a part of library culture over which we have total control. Let the 1990s go. Say no to "no" signs and use modern tools like Canva to produce attractive, vibrant library signage that informs and entertains your audience while creating a library culture you can be proud of.

VAASL 2015 - Is My High School Senior Ready to Be Your College Freshmen?

VAASL 2015 - Is My High School Senior Ready to Be Your College Freshman? from SassyLibrarian

Busy at my new school, doing a renovation while acclimating to a new job wasn't quite enough for me - I had to also decide to do a research project about tools and techniques that, in addition to a quality information literacy program, would help students during their transition to college level research that first year. This is the preliminary data that I presented on November 20, 2015 at the Virginia Association of School Librarians in Williamsburg. I'm going to write a longer blog post, breaking down each slide that covers the elements of my talk in this upcoming week, as well as offer up the final data when the collection is complete (I've still got a few schools to solicit for participation).

I'm hoping I could have an ALA proposal accepted for annual this year in Orlando since the obvious next step is to see how the data prompts faculty discussion and curricular change, which I imagine would be far more interested to school librarians. Stay tuned for more, and please feel free to reach out with any questions! 

New Adult: It's Not Just the Sexy Times

Public domain image via Pixabay
While I enjoyed all my sessions at the ALA Annual Conference (woo-hoo, Chicago!), the best program I attended was facilitated by the fabulous threesome of Kelly Jensen, Sophie Brookover, and Liz Burns. These outstanding librarians took time out of their busy Monday morning to present "New Adult: What Is It & Is It Really Happening?"

YA with Sexy Times

This fun and information filled session gave me enough to ponder over the course of a few posts, but one of the stand out points made by Liz Burns in particular was the idea that right now, New Adult is currently synonymous with Contemporary Romance starring the 18 to 24 age group. She made a point of saying that this growing genre was more than just "YA romance with sexy times added" but instead included elements of living away from authority figures, beginning to conceptualize the independence that comes with college or living independently, while also exploring sexuality and relationships in a more frank and explicit way. It's all about forming an identity as an adult, and you really can't do that successfully until you start living away from home.

No judgement was offered by the panelists regarding this trend, but it was suggested that the genre might gain more legitimacy when readers (and librarians and publishers) began associating it with other genres, broadening the scope of the label. I think this is actually the usual stigma against romance and when you add in more explicit sexual content, someone is going to get their panties in a bind about it, but I understood what she was saying. As much as I hate it and I feel it's very anti-woman (if men were the predominant readers of romance it would be a mark of an intellectual mind to have your shelves filled with it), the public has trouble thinking young adults (or new adults) falling in love has any kind of value. Luckily my days are largely spent with the intended audience, so I can enjoy like-minded enthusiasts who do think this is valuable topic!

Liz actually went on to say that the much bigger issue surrounding the perceived legitimacy of New Adult was the fact so much of it is currently self-published, with the accompanying poor editing this entails, but she imagined that as publishers finally opened their hearts and wallets to the authors with books to sell, the quality of the work should rise accordingly.

But for now, I wanted to make the point that there are certainly books and series which fall outside of contemporary romance (and do not have two eighteen year old laying down with each other or embracing with plenty of skin showing). Here were a few ideas that came to mind.

New Adult Beyond Contemporary Romance

So what books might fit the definition of New Adult but fall outside the realm of Contemporary Romance? Here are a few that were discussed at the ALA session or that occurred to me would feel right at home in this category.

Halfway to the Grave by Jeaniene Frost and it's immediate sequel, One Foot in the Grave, is fabulous urban fantasy paranormal romance, with the nineteen year old Cat Crawfield, the half-vampire offspring of a woman raped by a newly turned vampire, bent on teaching herself how to kill the undead. She does a pretty good job of it, too, but finds her world derailed when the incredibly hot and deadly 300 year old master vampire Bones, catches wind of what she's doing. While I would call the entire series urban fantasy, the first two books really fit the New Adult category. The romance with Bones is on equal footing as Cat's acceptance of herself and the fight between good/evil and the first book does NOT have a happy ending (I recommend getting both of them if you're beginning to read this series to prevent a bad case of agita). The sensuality level is very high, but it's extremely appropriate as Bones was a professional male prostitute before he was turned (and the man has skills, let me tell you). Their sexual intimacy is a big metaphor for Cat breaking down the walls she's built to protect herself over the years and vital to the storyline. So "neh" anti-sexy times contingent!

Diana Peterfreund's Secret Society Girl series has several of the New Adult markers, and clearly Dell Publishing is smart enough to know this as they have rewritten the introduction on Goodreads and elsewhere to this series to include a reference to "fans of Beautiful Disasters." The Ivy League college setting, the protagonist's struggle to define herself and often fight for her education amid the demands of the secret society to which she belongs and finally the drama surrounding various mysteries and her romantic entanglements put this firmly in the New Adult genre without being contemporary romance. Peterfreund even comments on her blog about how she was contacted by numerous would-be new adult writers eager to hear her tips since this series was so clearly New Adult, yet she makes a point of how she has purposely focused on writing about younger teens or about late twenty something, specifically because the New Adult market wasn't robust enough to support sales of literature for this age group.

Historical fiction is where New Adult hits a roadblock, largely because the cultural definition of adult has varied throughout time. Yet if we dissect the markers listed above for the genre, there will undoubtedly be historical fiction or other genres with historical elements that fit this category. One series that immediately came to my mind was The Agency series by Y. S. Lee. In the first novel, A Spy in the House, Mary Quinn is seventeen and has graduated from her training at Miss Scrimshaw's (where she has been groomed to be a spy). Posing as a companion to a spoiled young woman gives her the entrance she needs to the suspicious parties in question, but a keen-eyed and handsome engineer becomes first an obstacle and then an unlikely ally. While the burgeoning romance is a strong plot element, far more compelling in this series is Mary's posing as "Irish" when in actuality she is half-Chinese. Originally condemned to death as a child by the arcane Victorian justice system, she wrestles with her identity and the confines of society which would eagerly dictate her future. I love this series (so much so that purchased the third book in England since it came out months ahead of the US date and had it shipped to me) and it's readily apparent how the quest for identity makes this series - which I believe takes Mary up to about age 20 or so - New Adult.

Finally, it was mentioned in the session that all too often New Adult has become synonymous with "white, college bound" protagonists (even the books with the hero being the underground MMA fighter who also has a band - but that's for another post!). Yet, a close examination of "street literature" or what is also called "urban fiction" puts it firmly in the New Adult category. These young men and women are usually finished with high school and are in the process of negotiating their future in a gritty urban setting. African American and Latino characters are the norm and crime and poverty motivating factors for behavior and choices. Authors like Nikki Turner, Ashley Antoinette Snell, and Deja King are incredibly popular. Often, the protagonists are determined to make something of themselves or help their families, often while defining what real love looks like.

I'd be interested to hear what other people feel fall into New Adult but are not contemporary romance. What is out there that would appeal to this transitioning age group?

Show Me The Awesome: Librarians as Catalyst in a STEM/History Collaborative Project

Public Domain Image via Pixabay
Brace yourself, I'm going to compare librarians to eggs.

On the surface, I realize that doesn't make sense, but if you understand the chemistry of cooking, you'll figure out where I'm going with this. I am a cook, who not only enjoys the physical act of making great food, but who also insists on understanding why and how dishes work. In baking, eggs play the key role of binder, allowing other ingredients to not only meld together, but also to physically hold them in place while the outside forces of friction (think your mixer paddle) or heat work a reaction.

I think school librarians are like eggs.

We have a cross-departmental reach allowing us for a broad understanding of the curriculum, an understanding which gives us that eagle's eye view of where teacher content and projects might overlap. Backing innovative teacher ideas, particularly when they are in their infancy is a moral obligation, one I take seriously in order to encourage risk-taking and to establish a supportive professional climate. Librarians bind together teachers, departments, and students, making collaboration bloom into something completely new which hopefully enhances student learning.

Eggs Like to Sit in the Carton Together

Artwork by John LeMasney,
When I read the Stacked Books blog post on the concept of "Show Me the Awesome," the idea immediately resonated in my librarian soul. Librarians are usually friends with other librarians and we certainly read each other's blogs and Facebook statuses as well as occasionally get together to chat.

But chances are good that we don't actually discuss every cool thing we do and I've found that a few of my programs or projects that I think are run of the mill, fascinate other librarians who want all the details. Similarly, I've heard about an amazing hacker program or fundraiser that a friend has done forever in her library, never having experienced the brainwave about how cool it is and that she should share it with other professionals.

So when a good friend of mine sent me the blog post link with a "Have you seen this? You should do it!" note, I put the brakes on my "What on earth do I do that's so special?" reaction and really looked at what was on my plate. I think the best way to determine if a project is something others will want to read about is to figure out what you are doing that genuinely excites you. My happy energy was targeted at a particular project combining our new STEM program and a talented World Civilizations teacher looking for a meaningful end of year research project for her students.

I thought you might like to hear all the details. :-)

STEM Isn't Just an Acronym, It's a Philosophy

I don't know how many schools are jumping on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) bandwagon, but my school was lucky enough to have a donor who felt that our science and mathematics program could use funding to explore disciplinary opportunities in the field of STEM education. The Louis Maslow School of STEM was born from this donation, and in its initial stage it has brought a series of guest lecturers to our school and begun conversations among the faculty about how to bring this interdisciplinary approach to teaching into the classroom.

We have a talented director of the program who has done a terrific job of spreading the word about what STEM actually is. Begun in higher education, the movement for stronger, cross-disciplinary education came about as a result of pressure from science/engineering corporations lamenting that they had to hire so many employees from abroad when they wanted domestic workers (Raju & Clayson, 2010, p. 25). Due to the actual practice of professions related to these subject areas, the ideal STEM program moves away from a teacher-centered classroom and transforms into a problem-solving, inquiry-based space requiring students to engage in situations in order to find solutions (Fiorello, 2010).

A large part of our school's thinking about STEM has taken place outside of formal meetings and instead proliferated among the lunch tables where teachers in all subject areas debate the pros and cons of interdisciplinary teaching. It's not surprising, in an environment where we are empowered to try new projects and experiment in our courses, that an intrepid World Civilizations teacher considered how to further her goals in the classroom while also supporting the burgeoning STEM program. Lucky for me, both these wonderful educators brought me on board immediately and, together, we brainstormed how STEM would look in a history classroom.

The Third Industrial Revolution Inspiration

Inspired by an article in The Economist on the third industrial revolution, my wonderful history teacher was struck by the theme of manufacturing, particularly utilizing 3D printer technology, as being a leveler which will promote another major revolution. Because she uses the themes of revolution (agricultural, scientific, First Industrial, Second Industrial) as a vehicle for understanding world history throughout her course, we began the conversation of what would reinforce the students' research skills while also bringing in a critical thinking component regarding technology in the everyday lives of students. She was also looking for a spring term research project (we had done the 5 to 7 page research paper in the winter to transmit key information literacy skills) that would engage students and bring home the idea that history isn't something which ends with the last page of a textbook.

Bringing in our STEM director, the three of us brainstormed our ideas on a Google Doc, honing this concept from hazy vision into concrete project. My history teacher was kind enough to not want to saddle kids, the week before finals week, with an actual paper, so we decided that a group presentation fit the bill, one that hopefully utilized the Prezi and PowerPoint skills they had learned in other courses. We wanted to bring not only a STEM topic to the table, but also the STEM principles of working collaboratively, working creatively, researching effectively, and creating strong hypotheses into these student projects.

Here were our goals for students by area:

World Civilizations Goals: To understand recent digital technologies in both a historical perspective and also as another potential revolution which is changing society; to demonstrate the ability to critically think about a specific technology and develop a contextual argument discussing the pros and cons it offers humankind

STEM Goals: To understand that science and technology is not only all around us, but integrated so firmly into everyday life as to make its true impact often invisible; to further promote a concrete understanding of the science behind these technologies and to forecast where these technologies are likely to take society

Library Goals: To reinforce the information literacy skills taught World Civilization students throughout the year, particularly the ability to locate quality resources using the library's subscription databases and Noodletools as a vehicle for proper Chicago-style citations; to promote the use of collaborative technologies like Google Docs for effective group work; to demonstrate proficiency in using presentation technologies effectively

Drones, Google, Handheld Devices and GPS

The above four topics were the student groups' choices for their projects and we (the faculty) had reservations about some of them, but with it being the first year of the project we were willing to experiment. My concern was that, with the exception of GPS, these topics were broader than an actual technology (drones should maybe be artificial intelligence, Google would be search engine algorithms, and handheld devices should be cellular or wireless technology or the microchip) so the students were perhaps unintentionally complicating their topic.

Students spent a couple of days in their classroom brainstorming ideas, working in groups to hammer out roles, interspersed with three days in the library finding materials which would support the project's parameters. We watched each group carefully, circulating and reminding them to use the databases and cite their sources as well as occasionally helping with technology questions like using Google Docs or Prezi. Because I have a history of science background, two of the groups (Google and GPS) interviewed me for my perspective on these two technologies and I gave them quite an earful which they used to varying degrees. The drones group interviewed our school president, the former head of the Engineering program at West Point, and someone amply qualified to explain that particular technology and its impact.

The presentations were variable in quality. For the most part they all looked very nice (although they had too many bullet points!! *gnashes teeth*) and it was clear which students had bothered to seriously read versus the internet skimmers. My wonderful history teacher and I were struck by the fact that each group essentially had the same thesis although none of them seemed to realize it - namely, that technology is changing so quickly that the law, particularly surrounding privacy and personal liberties, can simply not keep up. A little more chilling was how easily students seemed nonplussed by the idea of their privacy being sold so cheaply, especially considering how they flip out if their parents insist on being a Facebook friend, but maybe that's me editorializing.

What We Are Going to Change for Next Year

We learned a lot for next time. I'm wondering if we shouldn't bump the project to a little earlier in the spring term since 9th grade brains seem to flash "FULL" in those last couple weeks of school. There were some very specific points that we realize we can work to emphasize next time that will make the kids focus on the key points better, namely the following:

  • Thesis needed from each group - as a school, we focus in that first year of helping students move from a "report" mentality to one of constructing an argument; I think we sort of assumed they would do this, but we need to clearly state it as an expectation so they don't dance around their own critical thinking
  • Tie the technology more strongly to the "revolution" theme - Each group should define “revolution” at beginning of presentation and explain how their technology fits this idea
  • Use the freaking databases!!! - Three days of in library research, we stated it in the project description, said umpteen times in class only to have one of the groups explicitly state their use of quality sources. I realized that we can use our SIRS Researcher debate database to elucidate on pros/cons requirement of the project.
  • State the information's authority - While the majority of students have had our required public speaking class and/or (if they've attended our Lower School) lived through our 7th and 8th grade speech projects, they still didn't seem to understand that we weren't to be snowed when it came to presenting information. Students should refer to authoritative sources within their presentation “According to an article in Wired magazine...” and we are going to insist they do this next year.
  • Stronger historical context - Considering it was a history project, I was dismayed by how few students made an effort to explain the before and after piece of their technologies. Posing some key questions - What was the world like before the technology in question appeared and what is the world like with it? - will hopefully help with that.
  • Better understanding of group work - It became readily apparent which groups had actually worked together and which ones hadn't in creating their presentation. Repetition of information, actually looking surprised at other people's slides, and kvetching about group members in my hearing were all keys to realizing that some groups didn't have this piece down. Since next year we are implementing a 9th grade STEM science course that has as one of its many goals teaching effective group work, we are hoping that we can reiterate these themes across other classes and help students understanding our expectations.

A Philosophical Reflection: Pigeons and Why We Need STEM

Pigeonholes. Literally.
If there is one student commonality I've noticed as a librarian regularly teaching information literacy skills, it's that students pigeonhole the skills and content they learn from one class to another, as if each 45 or 90 minute block exists without reference to another. When we introduce the history term papers and teach effective outlining, the history teachers and librarians co-teach the "rule of three" concept (three sections to support your thesis, three body paragraphs with evidence for each section, three pieces of evidence for each body paragraph, etc.), an idea we think should be astonishingly easy for students to grasp since they have pretty much mastered the 5 paragraph essay at this point which has three body paragraphs.

But they don't. We get cocked heads and "whaaa?" facial expressions. You compare hypotheses and theses and a similar reaction occurs. Why is this? My sinking suspicion is that we simply don't ask students to make cross-connections, unconsciously rewarding them for mastering individual subject material in largely traditional assessments (tests and papers). Since each student's goal is to get the best grade possible so they can have a transcript that will get them into the best college possible, it's not exactly shocking they aren't putting in the effort to make a ton of cross-curricular connections for which no teacher will reward them from a grade standpoint.

Hence, our needing a STEM approach in the worst way. Interdisciplinary teaching that has a project, problem-solving focus and which attempts to show relationships between subjects (and I truly believe that each individual teacher in their classroom is successfully showing relationship between material every day) will do more for helping students engage their world and develop a strong intellect than almost anything else we can offer. A few of the US History teachers (traditionally a largely 10th grade class) are discussing partnering with Sophomore English to see if they could align elements of their individual curricula and develop common themes. I've got my fingers crossed this could result in some interdisciplinary paper topics which would involve these talented teachers working together more frequently. The fewer pigeons in the individual cubbies, the better, in my opinion.

And pigeons lay eggs, right? See? It all comes full circle. I've got my fingers crossed that as our STEM program takes further root in our school culture, we are going to see more collaboration between teachers, departments and particularly the library. I for one love the opportunity to help bind ideas and skills together with the result of stronger, quality teaching and increased student learning.

What's your awesome?


Fioriello. P. (2010, November 2). Understanding the basics of STEM education [Web log post]. Retrieved from Dr. Patricia Fioriello Consults:
Raju, P. K., & Clayson, A. (2010, October). The future of STEM education: An analysis of two national reports. Journal of STEM Education, 11(5 & 6), 25-28. Retrieved from​index.php?journal=JSTEM&page=article&op=view&path[]=1508

Review: Poison Princess Opens Up YA Market for Kresley Cole

Poison Princess (The Arcana Chronicles #1)
by Kresley Cole (New York:
Simon & Schuster, 2012)
The other day one of my colleagues, a psychologist and an avid reader of YA literature, walked up to me in the library and said, "If I read one more book blurb about a girl discovering her abilities who finds herself 'strangely drawn' to the local bad boy, I'm going to scream."

I hear you, Kathy.

It's become an obnoxious device in paranormal romance that a young woman with "new" powers or abilities ends up transforming her personality, often with the assistance of the recently arrived bad boy who knows more than she does (yes, the sexual implication is obvious even when it goes unexplored). Even when the guy is hot and compelling, it would be an easy step to falling into the trope that a woman needs a man to draw out her best, most powerful self, and many authors have tumbled into that ditch with abandon. Yuck!

The good news? Kresley Cole's awesome new book, Poison Princess, isn't like that. Set in a post-apocalyptic world (through extended flashbacks we actually experience the apocalypse), Poison Princess is the first in Cole's new series, The Arcana Chronicles, and her first foray into the world of young adult literature.

I offer this introduction and caveat because the cover (which is lovely) and the jacket blurb could easily give this impression based on the reader's advisory conversations I've had with students.  But be aware that Cole's well-written novel is actually an amazing blend of apocalyptic fiction, paranormal romance, and occasionally horror. It's populated with flawed, interesting characters who keep the reader guessing through the course of the novel and who, I'm sure, will be further fleshed out as the series progresses.

Live vines in the bayou
Evie Greene lives in a beautiful house in one of the oldest and most beautiful houses in her Southern town. She's gorgeous, popular and dating a lovable and talented football player, but she's also just returned from a summer in a mental hospital. Her mother is walking on eggshells and Evie has managed to tell no one - not her boyfriend, not her best friend - about the horrifying nightmares which fill her nights as she worries she might end up back in that horrifying place. She fills sketchbooks with these disturbing images in an effort to purge them but worries that all the drugs and doctors in the world aren't going to give her a normal life.

At school, things aren't looking up either. Yes, her friends are great and her boyfriend attentive (particularly during their discussion about Evie losing her virginity to him) but a recent group of kids straight from the bayou have just transferred in and their poverty and their Cajun French immediately marks them as outsiders, even before their hostile attitudes register with students and teachers. That the ringleader, Jackson Deveaux, is as hot as they come doesn't make up for the chip on his shoulder. He can't stop staring at Evie but also clearly can't stand her.

When bizarre flare reduces most people and places to ashes, Evie and her mother are struggling to just survive and the outlook is not good...until Jack Deveraux turns up like a bad penny on his motorcycle offering a chance of a future. But now that Evie knows to trust her visions and has recently figured out one of her abilities (and it's one that would have her even more hunted in the world she now lives in), she doesn't trust Jack's intentions but she does believe in his survival skills, so they embark on the road to finding Evie's grandmother together.

Evie can't stop thinking about her grandmother, who kidnapped Evie when she was just a little girl, and who understood Evie's visions and tried to convince her of the magic in her blood. A tarot reader, Evie's grandmother explained a great deal to Evie but she realizes she's forgotten a lot of it and the doctors brainwashed another chunk of it out, so Evie realizes that she needs to get to this long-lost woman who might have valuable answers. Considering that her mother took a restraining order out against her after Evie's kidnapping, this isn't going to be easy.

What I think is so brilliant about Cole's writing is the romance between Jack and Evie. Jack is a total ass and Evie can acknowledge to herself that he's handsome and there's a physical attraction but that he's given her no reason to like or trust him. Readers are able to figure out that with Jack's horrible home life and role models (or lack thereof) it's entirely likely that he has no idea how to communicate his feelings at all to a girl, instead relying on cryptic conversations and anger. His Cajun French is wicked sexy but until the last part of the book, it's hard to figure out the depth of his feeling for Evie.

The other Tarot card figures are enigmatic at best and few seem to fall into the fully good or fully evil category which I love. The fact that there are still a few characters who have been seen in visions but not yet appeared in person (particularly Death, who sounds like he's going to throw a real wrench, both from a fighting perspective and a romantic perspective) makes me chomp at the bit for the next book!

My only complaint regarding this novel is that it's written in the first person (another common YA device) and I sorely miss hearing Jack's perspective, even when I agree with Cole's writer decision to give us events as they come to fruition inside Evie's head. The only time we are not with Evie's POV is when we are in the mind of the psycho serial killer, whose experience bookends Poison Princess, offering a brilliantly tight ending with the Tarot theme.

Of concern for librarians is the fact that Kresley Cole is an established adult romance writer whose excellent Immortals After Dark series is incredibly popular among adult paranormal romance readers. I wish she had taken a slightly different name for the Arcana Chronicles, because I can see a lot of teen readers eager to read more of her work picking these up. These adult romance books are also unbelievably well-written and actually hilariously funny, but on the sensuality scale, they fall between "scorcher" and "erotic" romance with their level of explicit description.

It's gratifying to see a terrific author like Kresley Cole not only branching into young adult paranormal but also kicking butt with her great writing and compelling characters. Her female leads definitely don't need men to help them realize who they are and they don't put up with being treated badly. With Poison Princess, Cole has created a dark new world populated by individuals readers will want to follow to the end of the series. I for one, am glad that she has embarked on this new adventure!

YALSA Throws Down the Gauntlet with the 2013 Reading Challenge

It always happens when the book awards are announced at ALA at the end of January, a mixed reaction of shock and gratification at the announcements depending on my opinion of the books of read, followed by an overwhelming sense of "Oh, no! I need to get on the stick and read lots more books. NOW."

But it's often not that easy to get started. Leave it to YALSA to offer just the incentive I needed with their 2013 Reading Challenge. They even have put together a fantastic pdf of all the books who have won all those YMA awards, organized by author and indicating which awards the book has won. I love the range of books represented - not just your typical fiction books, but the Stonewall Book Award winners to beef up my GLBTQ list, nonfiction, audiobooks and the best graphic novels.

So I need to read these books by June 22nd (should not be a problem considering how great they look) and I love that the contest is open to ANYONE, so teens and teachers will be hearing about this from me! Participants write a comment on the blog post with all the rules and indicate their blog, Goodreads, LibraryThing, YouTube or some other link to the tracking device the person will be using. It looks like you can keep a list some other way but you might want to email them how best to do it. Every Saturday they'll publish a check in post and you leave a comment with the books you've read that week and include links to your reviews or give your opinion about them in the comment. Once you finish the challenge you get a special "Conqueror's Badge"!

So join me in tackling the best of YA literature from this past year. You'll be glad you did!!!

Untraditional Book Formats Prove Popular...But What Does It Mean for Schools Moving to Digital Collections?

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by
Caroline Preston (New York: HarperCollins, 2011)
I've been having quite a few conversations recently involving how or when independent school libraries will move over to a collection model based largely on ebooks. A lot of factors drive this conversation - wanting to remain competitive in the market, the many schools moving to a 1:1 BYOD model for computing, etc. - but administrators often seem eager to get rid of print.

A mistake? Yes and no.

My first thought is automatically cost. While some companies actually have you 'buy' the book using a one-time fee, you are still at their mercy since access is determined by them (you don't physically store the book on a server you own). The majority of ebooks, however, are made available using subscription services like Overdrive or various databases, meaning that you are paying thousands of dollars each year to provide your students with access to these volumes.

Thousands of dollars a year can create a pretty good print collection at any school, but you do have the limitation that only one student at a time can use the print volume you've purchased (some ebook providers have a single check out system as well, but others allow unlimited access). But these pros and cons aside, if a school (for various reasons) chooses to move to a more electronic collection, I still feel that a portion of the collection should be available in print form. Why?

Serendipity and format result in greater access.

Serendipity is the first issue. Particularly with recreational reading, teenager selection styles seem to be geared toward wandering stacks and displays and picking up books with attractive covers to read the dust jackets. I think there is also a tactile pleasure for many students (tactile-kinesthetic learners, maybe?) to handle books when making a decision to read them. Think of how many students love to go to Barnes & Noble and sit in comfy chairs with a stack of books to browse and a coffee - there is something about that shopping experience which appeals. You have one book in your hand and suddenly a few others in the vicinity look terrific, so you read those. Serendipity resulting in more recreational reading has taken place due to instant access.

I do think that sites like Goodreads, its YA sister site Teenreads, Shelfari, and LibraryThing are taking the place of (or highly supplementing the process) of this browsing experience. More and more students are coming to the library with a list of books they've found via Amazon or one of the above sites. I personally push Goodreads like there is no tomorrow since I think its algorithm for suggesting books after you've rated the ones you've read is the best out there.

As a collection development and display tool Goodreads can't be beat either. Want a reminder of all the football fiction books for a Super Bowl display? There's probably a list on Goodreads to help you. And since in the end what readers want most in a sense of community, the review process on these sites have a built in sense of seeing what people really like or dislike about a book or series, with users easily able to friend others and see what they are reading as well. In fact, when you look at a book to read more about it, your Goodreads friends have their reviews and ratings show first on the book's page. Really helpful.

Even if serendipity can move to a more electronic version of itself, there is the other sticky issue of format. Most fiction and recreational nonfiction translates very well to an e-reader format. It's just one page after another of text, right? As long as that's the case, the reader is just processing that text, but in the case of nonfiction with figures or images, the image can get really wonky (sidebars are notorious for wreaking havoc). There is also a growing body of fiction and nonfiction which uses nontraditional formatting for a different experience and this can be a huge problem when translated to an e-format, if it gets translated at all.

This double page format with varying type size would be
a major pain to negotiate with an ereader, which is
probably why you can't buy it that way.
Case in point, the book I placed up at the top of this post, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston which isn't available in ebook format for good reason. I enjoyed this pictorial work of historical fiction centering on a young woman from Cornish, New Hampshire with dreams of becoming a writer. The main character chronicles her journey to Vassar, then to Greenwich Village and Paris, by using typed text as well as ads and other snippets to illustrate her journey. Despite a small amount of text, a very complete picture of this story is transmitted but e-reader audiences would be denied the experience.

Chopsticks: A Novel by Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo
Corral (illustrator) (New York: Razorbill, 2012)
An incredibly popular book in my library right now is the book Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony, which illustrates a tempestuous love story between a piano prodigy and the boy next door. Similar to Preston's book, the design is evocative of a scrapbook with the pages slowly revealing the madness of the young woman whose world unravels for myriad reasons. Students cannot get enough of pouring over the images and text of this story. With a size that is definitely unusual in its dimensions (about 8 by 9 inches), this book stands out from others on the shelf, by format and by ambition. Naturally, it also is not available in ebook format despite its popularity.

PostSecret by Frank Warren (William Morrow, 2005)
The first in a popular series.
Both of these volumes' appeal remind me of the nonfiction PostSecret series which students not only read regularly but also follow the website with enthusiasm. Started by Frank Warren as a community art project, contributors send him anonymous postcards with highly personal secrets on them, with the result being a moving, funny, poignant and disturbing journey. Multiple volumes are the result and I've been begged to buy all of them (I happily acquiesced). Listening to students discuss not just the text but the artwork always reminds me of discussions of the importance of visual literacy - why not start with fun fiction and nonfiction to get students used to interpreting images and reading deeper into an author's intent? While other visual literacy exercises would be available via a tablet computer or laptop, some e-readers clearly would not lend themselves as easily to this skill development. With all of the above books unavailable in any electronic format, students solely dependent on a digital formats for reading via their library would be denied access to these works.

And in the end, that's what librarians are all about - access. Access to great information, great recreational reading and caring adults who can help students and teachers.
Until access is more guaranteed digitally (and perhaps more affordable in that format) to as many options as exist in print, school libraries will undoubtedly need to be a hybrid of print and electronic options. 
In a world where we feel digital formats open up our horizons, it's vital to remember that, as of right now, they limit them as well. Our job as librarians is to be ever vigilant so we can guarantee the joy of serendipity (electronic and in person), a variety of formats and continual access to the best information to our communities.