Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Review: 100 Sideways Miles

Andrew Smith has quickly become one of my top favorite authors this year. His characters are honest and relatable, and their stories are always engaging. 100 Sideways Miles is no exception.

Finn Easton understands time in miles instead of minutes. He can’t remember much from his life before a freak accident in which a dead horse fell from a bridge and left him epileptic and killed his mother. There’s always a possibility that he’s an alien straight from the one hugely successful science fiction novel his father published.

There are two people that matter the most to Finn – his crazy friend Cade Hernandez, and the first girl he’s ever loved, Julia Bishop. When Julia leaves California to move back to Chicago, Finn is devastated. He’s too depressed to even get out of bed, but he and Cade had made plans to visit their college of choice in Oklahoma and he knows it’s his only chance to get a break.

And what would a coming of age story be without a life-changing event? On the trip, the boys become unlikely heroes after another unexpected accident and learn that it’s okay to take a detour from what’s planned.

100 Sideways Miles is a great book about friendship, accepting who you are and finding your own way. Finn and Cade have a unique, unbreakable friendship that, for me, really made the book so great. Cade's always coming up with ways to describe the scar that was left on Finn's back after the accident with the horse. This scar connects Finn to his father's book (along with his name), and though it has come to define him in some ways, Cade helps Finn get past it.

Friday, October 17, 2014

One Community, One Book: Mahaska Reads

This past Wednesday saw the conclusion to Mahaska Reads, the first “one community, one book” program I helped organize. This year’s series of events and discussions were based around Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. I’m pleased to say that it was very well received by the community, and I’m already looking forward to planning next year’s events.

In the past, Mahaska Reads was typically sponsored solely by the Oskaloosa Public Library. In order to reach a broader audience, I reached out to the manager of our local independent book store, Book Vault; the director of William Penn University’s Wilcox Library, and the teacher librarian at the local high school. We got together in March to decide on a title and met once a month from there to develop the series of events.

We kicked things off on September 15 with “Mahaska Book Night.” Inspired by World Book Night, I knew we could get people in the community excited about participating if they had the chance to receive a free copy of Twelve Years a Slave. The Oskaloosa Public Library Foundation graciously provided the funds to purchase 60 copies of the book. Members of the Mahaska Reads committee planned to hand thirty of those copies out at Smokey Row, a local coffee shop; Penn Central Mall; and The Cellar Peanut Pub.

I honestly was surprised at how quickly those books went – people were waiting at each of the locations! With poor planning on my part, I didn’t get to the pub until after the city council meeting, and there was a group of about ten who waited an hour before leaving disappointed. Fortunately, a few of them returned while I was there, and I still had copies for them.

The next evening we had our first program, Unconditional Surrender: A Visit with Ulysses S. Grant, and handed out the rest of our free copies of Twelve Years a Slave to the first 30 people who attended. We had 55 come! Marshalltown Community Theater actor Pete Grady offered a fantastic portrayal of the Civil War general and President. Mr. Grady's knowledge of Grant's life is extensive, and his presentation captured the attention and adoration of those in the audience. A great program!

Following events in the series included a book chat about titles with themes related to those in Twelve Years a Slave given by the high school librarian, the academic librarian and myself; a Community Discussion at a local assisted living facility; and a screening of Steve McQueen’s film adaptation at the library. Something I also didn't expect was we had four book clubs in the community read and discuss the book!

Our final event took place at the Book Vault, a presentation on Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation given by Dr. Ron Rietveld, Lincoln scholar and professor emeritus of History at University of California-Fullerton. Knowledgeable and enlightening, Dr. Rietveld captured the attention of everyone in attendance and entertained several questions at the close of his presentation.

One of the participants said to me at the last book discussion that, as far as she could recall, this year’s Mahaska Reads was the most talked about in a long while. It wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration with those on the Mahaska Reads committee and the support of the Friends of the Library and the Library Foundation. I’m just happy that we were able to bring the community together and get them excited about reading, learning, and discussing issues with each other.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Book Review: Grasshopper Jungle

Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle is a history of the end of the world as told by a Polish teenager living in small-town Iowa. Austin Szerba lives in Ealing, Iowa, which isn't exactly the most exciting place in the world. He's a bit confused. He loves his girlfriend Shann, but he also has inexplicable feelings for Robby, his best friend since elementary school.

Oh, and he’s slightly responsible for the exposure of a plague that turns people into six foot tall man-eating praying mantises.

It all begins when Austin and Robby get beaten up by Grant Wallace for looking like queer candy canes. They look like queer candy canes because of the red and white striped ties from their Lutheran school uniforms. Grant also steals their shoes and tosses them on the roof of the local From Attic to Seller Consignment Store.

Fortunately, Austin works for the owner of the store, who also happens to be his girlfriend’s stepfather. One event leads to another, and somehow a glass globe containing the MI Plague Strain 412E stored in the owner’s office gets smashed.

If you’re not a fan of foul language, you may not appreciate this history. If you find depictions of teenage smoking, drinking and sex distasteful, you probably shouldn't pick this one up. But if you – like me – are fascinated by creative apocalyptic scenarios, drawn in with realistic characters, and understand that sometimes teenage boys make bad decisions, you should give it a try.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Let's play catch up...again!

So March was crazily busy, and I can't for the life of me understand how it's already April! From helping plan and oversee a week full of technology programs for teens to putting the finishing touches on and releasing a new website, library life proved to be quite exciting this past month. So here's what's been going on:

DIY @ Oskaloosa Public Library
The 9th through the 15th of March was Teen Tech Week, in which libraries across the country plan programs and events that promote the non-print resources and services they make available. At my library, I decided we should go all out and do a program every day that week! 

We started with a "Tech Take Apart" on Monday - teens got to tear apart some old computers we had sitting around. We followed that with "Build a Robot" the next night and let the teens build non functioning robots from the computer parts. Each of these programs were pretty popular (for our smallish library), drawing between 10 to 15 teens!

Wednesday, we got to Skype with John Corey Whaley, author of the Printz Award winning novel, Where Things Come Back. Sadly, we only had two teens at this program - but they had great questions, and John was brilliant! Thursday, we tracked down an Atari, Super Nintendo and an N64 for a classic video game day - another wildly popular program, and Friday we concluded with a "Pixel Art Workshop" in which we crafted with Perler Fuse Beads.

Overall, I felt Teen Tech Week was successful, and we were even featured in a video by the local news channel, the local newspaper, and even mentioned in an online article in Library Journal and School Library Journal's The Digital Shift!

A couple months into my directorship, I pretty much decided that the library's website needed a major face lift. I felt that the current site just wasn't easily navigable. You had to dig and dig for information. So, I started toying around with a blogger site - just to see what I could do. After months of transferring information, struggling with coding, and even half giving up and researching outside developers - I finally got to the point where I was happy with what I came up with.

I shared the site with staff, then presented it to the Board of Trustees, and we went live with it on March 17th! Now, I know it doesn't compare to other, more professional sites, but I think it's a big improvement on what we had. In my brief search for website developers and designers, I discovered it was going to take a lot of money - money that I felt could be spent on materials, staff, and other important things. Our situation may change, but for now, I'm pretty satisfied.

Books & Beer Club
Back in December, I tweeted an article about book clubs in bars to the local Cellar Peanut Pub, suggesting we start our own club - and we did! We meet at 6 p.m. on the last Tuesday of the month at the pub, and I have to say I look forward to each discussion. We started with Twelve Years a Slave in January, then Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings in February, and just had our March discussion about Doug Coupland's Eleanor Rigby last week. 

It's been an awesome way to meet and connect with others in the community, enjoy and learn about craft beer, and chat about books! This month, we'll be moving on to John F.D. Taft's The Bell Witch - which I need to start reading soon.

Osky Social Media Group
Another task I've committed to since starting as director has been trying to bolster the library's social media presence. I've noticed, though, that besides the crazily popular Facebook posts of an alternative local news source, there's not much activity here in Oskaloosa. A number of small businesses and organizations in Oskaloosa are on Facebook, and a few are even on Twitter, but getting people to interact and join the conversation has proved to be a challenge.

To help, I decided to start a Social Media Group. Along the same lines as the Social Media Clubs of larger cities, we meet on a regular basis to share ideas, learn new things, and chat about trends in social media. In February, I led a discussion on paying to promote pages on Facebook, and last week we talked about managing multiple networks. I'm really encouraged by the response I've gotten, and I look forward to the group growing!

Friday, February 14, 2014

Love Ain't For Lovers Anymore

I have to admit, a part of me secretly wants to be a teen librarian – mostly because I really enjoy planning programs. This past week, my Youth Librarian and I collaborated on an “Anti-Valentines Day” party for teens.  She came up with the idea, and I said “Let’s do it!” My thoughts being, there’s plenty of opportunity for those who celebrate love and all that gooey stuff this month, but what about those teens who are focused on other things?

The first activity that came to my mind was candy sweethearts – or, for our party, “not so sweethearts.”  I baked about two dozen sugar cookies and planned to make frosting from powdered sugar, milk and food coloring. (Then I discovered premade cookie decorating packs with frosting from WalMart, which I grabbed just in case I didn’t have enough of my homemade cookies.) We laid these out and told teens they could decorate their own hearts with messages like “Go away” or “Bite Me” (and asked them to avoid vulgarities, of course).

Most of the teens who talked about the program beforehand were looking forward to the next activity, making their own voodoo dolls. We have a ton of felt and stuffing (left over from previous programs dating back who knows how far), I bought a simple sewing kit, and I printed a pattern. We dug out some buttons and other embellishments from the craft cupboard too. I thought it might be above some of the teens’ skill levels, but those who tried it had no trouble at all.

Finally, the activity I had the most fun planning and preparing for was Mad Libs Lyrics. On the promotional poster, we said teens would get the chance to write their own Taylor Swift break up songs.  I pulled a few Taylor Swift lyrics, and a couple of Miley Cyrus lyrics (by request) and turned them into Mad Libs!

The biggest draw, though, was the snacks! We kept it simple – popcorn, cookies, soda and chocolate. Lots of chocolate. One teen, though, asked, “Is this dark chocolate? Why did you get dark chocolate?!” to which my response was, “Because it was wrapped in purple, and it’s dark and moody. This IS an ‘Anti-Valentines’ party you know!” We only had seven teens in attendance, but they all enjoyed themselves, which is the most important part. Oh, and the local paper did a write up on it too!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Reading around Twelve Years a Slave

Next Tuesday evening will be the first meeting of the Books & Beer Club I'm hosting with the co-owner of a local bar, The Cellar Peanut Pub. After a surprisingly great response from their social media following, we selected Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave for our first title. I just finished reading this past weekend, and now I'm looking forward to discussing the book over craft beers at the pub next week!

Twelve Years a Slave is the autobiographical account of a free man in New York who was kidnapped and forced into slavery from 1841 to 1853. Solomon begins his narrative with an explanation of his free status, how he earned a living and how he came to meet his wife. Then he explains how he fell into the hands of his kidnappers and was sold into slavery. Convinced that he would be beaten to death if he mentioned anything of his free status, Solomon endured hard labor, whippings and cruel slavers for twelve years with little hope of returning to his family and home.

Another example of antislavery literature written during its time, Solomon's story demonstrates the horrors and injustice of the system that took advantage of thousands of people for the profit of white plantation owners. During his enslavement, he labored endless days in sweltering heat, watched a family torn apart, witnessed savage beatings, and survived years on a meager diet that consisted of little more than cornmeal and bacon grease. Often times, the thought of some day returning to his wife and children was the only thing that kept him from ending his life.

For me, the following quote sums up Solomon's experience: "I had not then learned...to what limitless extent of wickedness [man] will go for the love of gain" (Chapter 3). That speaks volumes about the system of slavery, and it speaks volumes to man's continued "love of gain" today. As a middle class, white American in the twenty first century, I have nothing in my life that compares to the injustice that Solomon and so many others endured because of slavery. However, I - and millions of others - have much to learn from their stories. Without their voices, how could change have been possible? How can further change be possible? While reading the narrative, I thought of a few novels that have also expressed and illustrated the injustice and hardships of the African American race in the United States. For further reading, check out:

by Harriet Beecher Stowe

by Toni Morrison

by Zora Neale Hurston

by Alice Walker

by Ralph Ellison

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The "B" word...

Like with many cities, January is budget time here in Oskaloosa. That means as director I get to put on my number crunching, library advocating hat and do my best to justify the library’s request for funding for the next fiscal year. January, I’ve also noticed, seems to be the time when I get the most calls from vendors of all types trying to push their products. They know we’re working on the budget and will try anything, it seems, to convince us to buy, upgrade, replace! Thus, it’s an ever more important time to pay attention and realize what’s necessary and what’s not.

The local listservs are abuzz, too, with the chatter about budgets as colleagues request ideas for making the library’s case, figures to compare against, and much needed moral support. Some are dealing with board of trustees or council members who believe things like “many libraries rely solely on their Friends Groups and Foundations for materials funding” or “the library could be efficiently operated by volunteers.” That’s enough to ruffle my pages! It’s during this time that I keep a few things in mind when preparing to discuss the budget with board and council members:

Money spent on library materials means money saved for the community.
Just and example, the current hardcover price on Amazon for M.D. Sedman's bestselling novel, The Light Between Oceans, is $18.14. Since we added it to our collection, this title has circulated 19 times. Assuming our patrons would have to buy the title to read it if they didn't have access to it at the library, that’s roughly $326.52 that remains in the community’s pocket because library patrons aren't spending it at places like Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other non-local retailers. Considering the number of new titles purchased against the total circulation of all those items, a $30,000 investment in library materials could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings for the community.

Money spent on library materials and staff is an investment in the community’s future.
Up to date exam and college prep books are expensive. Resume and cover letter guides are expensive. Internet access can be pricey too, especially if you live in a rural area. For those new to computers, filling out applications online can be a confusing and frustrating endeavor. A well trained reference librarian can make the task much less so. People who lack the skills needed to find a job may not be able afford to spend money on the resources needed to do so. The library gives people access to these resources and services, which can increase their chances of getting better educations or obtaining work, which in turn would benefit the community. But the library cannot rely on donations and volunteer work alone.

Librarians deserve to be paid!
Cataloging and processing items, planning programs, organizing information, completing in depth research, managing collections, interacting with patrons and helping them find the resources they need - and that’s just the beginning! Not just anyone can walk in from the street, offer their time for free and be successful at all of these tasks. It takes time, skill and training. Yes, some of the more general tasks could be completed by volunteers, but, believe it or not, reliable, skilled volunteers are hard to find. And don’t forget to factor in things like the cost of volunteer insurance (which some cities, like mine, require), privacy issues and consistency. (This definitely isn't to say volunteer work isn't valuable and appreciated, though!)

All of this, of course, isn't new to the library think tank. However, these are things of which sometimes board and council members and other government representatives need to be reminded again and again as we argue the case for library funding. If you're in charge of budgeting for your library (or even if you're not) what other arguments can and should be made? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Five Favorite Reads from 2013

I'm kind of embarrassed to say that I didn't read that many books in 2013. According to my "Books I've Read 2013" Pinterest board, I made it through 19. I'm definitely resolving to read more this year - especially now that I'm serving on the All Iowa Reads Committee! In the meantime, here are five reads that I really enjoyed this past year (in no particular order):

1. Reality Boy by A.S. King

I snatched an advanced copy of this book at ALA basically because of the cover. I knew nothing of the story, but I thought the cover art was pretty cool. About an emotionally scarred teenager, who once was a child reality TV star, coming to terms with his past, the story engaged me even more.

I picked up Better Nate than Ever off the return cart at my library and immediately knew that my husband would enjoy it...because his name is Nate! So I checked it out, and after the book sat on the coffee table untouched through two renewals, I read it myself. What a story! Thirteen year old, show tunes obsessed Nate absconds to New York to try out for the musical version of E.T. I was thrilled, too, to see that Tim Federle would be at ALA, and that I would get a chance to pick up an advanced copy of the sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate! - just as great!

3. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I actually read all three of Rainbow's books this year, and I've pretty much permanently added her to my list of favorite authors of all time. Eleanor & Park is a touching story about the relationship between an unconventional girl in a bad situation and the boy she sits by on the school bus and with whom she finds an escape.

4. In the After by Demitria Lunetta

Another ALA grab, In the After is a thrilling post-apocalyptic, dystopian novel deserving a position among The Hunger Games and Divergent. The central character, Amy, is left to fend for herself after "They" - blood thirsty hunters - overtake the Earth's population. I actually got to meet Demitria, serving on "Team Twinkie" with her in a young adult trivia game at a new author session at the conference. She's pretty awesome!

5. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

A finalist for the 2014 All Iowa Reads selection, The Snow Child was my personal favorite from the list of books the committee read. New to Alaska homesteading, childless Jack and Mabel struggle with the isolation of the wilderness and the work of the farm. After the first snowfall, a mysterious child comes to them from the wilderness, brightens their lives and they come to love her as their own daughter.