It’s the end of the world as we know it…

In my very first job out of college, I was an editorial assistant for an educational publishing company. We imported reading programs from New Zealand (which, I was told, had the highest literacy rates in the world), and my job was to “Americanize” the texts for the US market.

That meant the obvious–changing “colour” to “color,” and the like. It also meant sanitizing stories that would be considered too dark or grim or scary for US schoolchildren. I learned that in New Zealand, schools didn’t shy away from sad or hard things in their reading program stories because they believed children needed to learn about fear and how to address it. They felt that facing it and working through it was the way to build strength and resiliency.

I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, but especially lately. As I watched Greta Thurnberg address the United Nations last week, it was awfully hard not to feel as if we are all now living through the plot line of an apocalyptic (probably YA) novel. Because, let’s face it: We probably are. We are aren’t too far past the exposition stage of the narrative, I suppose, and it’s hard to know exactly how this story will play out, but the action is rising quickly. You know shit’s getting real when the birds start dying and the oceans start warming. In those narratives, that’s always a portent of worse to come.

Like the New Zealanders, I’ve never shied away from stories about hard things. I’ve needed those works to help me through them. If anything is my religion, it’s probably literature. So, today, I thought I’d share some of my favorites from a genre I think of as Extinction Lit, stories about people facing and living through mass extinction events. Because–and this is important–in these stories there are always people who live through.

Feed isn’t quite an extinction novel, but it’s the next-closest thing. (Technically, it’s cyberpunk.) In 2002 M.T. Anderson pretty much imagined a world with smart phones embedded into our bodies–before smartphones were even a thing. I haven’t read it since the early 2000s, so I don’t know how it might have aged, but I’ve thought of it often since 2008ish. This is YA, so steer clear if you don’t like teen-age protagonists.

I picked up Station Eleven in an airport, before it became kind of a phenomenon. I thought it would be a fluffy airplane read, but it wasn’t. This one isn’t quite an extinction story, either, but it is about the collapse of civilization via disease that takes out almost everyone. This is my favorite one on the list, crushing in all the right ways because it shows you how beautiful we are. Or at least, can be.

The Age of Miracles is the book that prompted this post; I read it last week. I picked it up because during the summer I read the author’s latest novel (The Dreamers). Both are about inexplicable events that tear at the fabric of society, but I’m linking to Age of Miracles because it is more extinction-y that The Dreamers. (But I thought The Dreamers was a better book.) As Goodreads reviews note, this isn’t a book for the hardcore sci-fi fan (which I’m not). This is an adult title that skews YA; the narrator is a young woman in her 20s looking back at what happened to the world when she was 11 and the earth’s rotation began slowing.

Life As We Knew It is another one (YA) I haven’t read in years, but unlike a lot of other books it hasn’t faded from my memory. Like Age of Miracles, what intrigues me about this one is watching the relatively gradual change that comes to the characters’ way of life. Things change in a pretty big way all at once, but in many ways life keeps going on as it had before the big change event. It reminds me that even in the midst of calamity, things can seem almost normal–can actually be almost normal. It was the first in what became a series, but I tried and couldn’t stick with the second book.

Pretty sure I’ve mentioned Wanderers in passing here before. It’s a big, sprawly, Stephen King-like tale of near-extinction, with lots of bad guys and biohazards and mystery. Honestly, I got a bit lost near the end, but that might be because I was listening to it rather than reading it. It was in some ways the airplane read I thought Station Eleven would be, but it is definitely a novel that nods hard at current people and situations, so it’s more than just dystopian horror. (Maybe there’s no such thing as “just dystopian horror” right now? )

To be honest, after some responses to my last post I feel a little hesitant to publish this one. Some part of me is always, constantly alarmed about what’s happening in our world (just as some part of me is always carrying low-grade stress about work), but another part of me is just fine, thank you. For real. Some days I’d give anything to feel a little pre-2016, and if I project too far into the future I can feel panicked, but right now, today, everything’s mostly fine, especially for someone like me (and probably many of you who are reading here). Although these books are about hard, dark, very grim circumstances, they help me see that even in the midst of those (far worse than most things happening in our world right now), there’s still joy and light and hope. People still want to–fight to–live. These dystopian tales help us understand why, which is probably the real point of them.

Thinking about what to write in this post, I searched out articles on toxic positivity, a concept that seemed to be everywhere for a hot minute last spring. Pretty much every article I found talked about the negative effects on an individual’s mental health from insisting on a positive attitude about everything, but I think there’s another (maybe greater) collective danger in relentlessly turning our gaze only to the bright side, or insisting that reality is only a matter of attitude: It keeps us from seeing things we need to see about larger systems and causes of suffering that exist outside of individuals.

As James Baldwin famously told us, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Extinction Lit–and all the youth activists begging us to pay attention to climate scientists–can help us face what’s in front of us and what’s coming at us. If nothing else, it can help us prepare for it, even if we can’t change it.

7-Day Book Challenge: Dear Fahrenheit 451

A recent text from my friend Lisa:

I bought you a gift.

We’re an odd couple, Lisa and me. She grew up in Miami, and I in Seattle. She is heat and wildfire and in-your-face and I am cool and rain and passive aggressive. She owns a pair of green leather pants and a bright yellow Mustang convertible. I wear a whole lot of denim and drive a tired Volkswagen Jetta. But there is no one on this planet I laugh harder with than Lisa, which is why we are friends.

The last surprise, no-obvious-reason-for-a-gift she gave me was a black belly-dancing bra covered with gold beads and sequins. Not because I belly dance (I don’t). But because I “needed it.” (I kinda did, but that’s fodder for another story, for another time.) So, I felt a little thrill of anticipation when I read her words. I never quite know what to expect from Lisa, which is one of my favorite things about her.

I think she may have clapped her hands in delight when handing me her gift:

I’m pretty sure I did when I saw it. “Oh, I want to read it right now!” I said.

“I know. I really debated when to give it to you. I thought about waiting until the end of our visit so you wouldn’t be distracted the whole time.”

I devoured about half the book in my first sitting, and now I’m doling it out to myself in little bits at a time. I love it because it is a book for those of us who love books. It’s not serious or weighty (something I sorely need these days), but some letters deliver a good, sharp punch. Really, the best word I can come up with for it is delightful–funny, poignant, witty, smart. It’s full of insider book nerd/librarian jokes, and while you might need to be a bit of the former to enjoy it, I don’t think you need to be the latter. It’s a book I wish I had thought to write (and then actually written), but I’m sure I couldn’t have written it as well as the author has.

While I love it for its own self, I know I love it even more because it was the most wonderful kind of gift: one given for no other reason than the giver saw it and knew the recipient should have it. Which means, of course, that the giver has already, in so many ways, truly seen the recipient. And what better gift is there than that–to be truly seen by someone you love?

Thanks, Lisa.

(This was written in response to a Facebook challenge to post photos of the covers of 7 favorite books in 7 days with no commentary. Clearly, I’ve broken the no commentary rule–shocker! I’m not as compliant as I once was and tend not to follow rules that seem arbitrary. Who says the 7 days have to be in a row? And why 7? Not sure how many I’ll do. Feel free to nominate yourself for the challenge.)

 

 

7-Day Book Challenge: Turn Not Pale, Beloved Snail

I stole this book from the King County Library system. I didn’t forget to return it. I didn’t lose it and find it years later. I made a deliberate, conscious, and purposeful decision to keep it because I needed it and back in 1981 I didn’t have any way to get my own, lawfully-owned copy.

I happened upon it by chance; I worked as a page at the Burien library, which was, it seemed to me, a rather twee (though it would be years before I was introduced to the concept of “twee”) job title for those of us who shelved the library’s returned books. Sorting and shelving books was a fabulous way to discover titles I’d never have otherwise found, and this was, perhaps, the best of the treasures I uncovered, for it helped me find a way back to writing.

Kind of ridiculous to think that, at 17, I’d already lost my way as a writer, but I had. Actually, considering all the ridiculous things we do and say to children around the subject of writing, it’s not ridiculous at all. At any rate, I’d lost my way, and this book helped me find it again.

“What do you do with this book? There aren’t any rules. Start anywhere and go anywhere….If a teacher likes the book, don’t let her (or him) shove it down your throat and make lessons out of it, unless that’s the way you want to use it. And tell your teacher, if you have to, that the kind of writing this book is about isn’t a spelling assignment, or a lesson in grammar or handwriting or how to make paragraphs. This writing is to get down your good ideas, and what you think and feel inside.”

–Jacqueline Jackson, Turn Not Pale, Beloved Snail ©1974 Little, Brown and Company

The author, Jacqueline Jackson, wrote children’s books that I didn’t find particularly compelling but this book gave me a vision of what life as a writer could be:  One filled with kids and books and talk about books and humor and joy and mess-ups that were not failures or potential triggers for frightening adult anger but material for great stories. (There’s a whole chapter on the merits of being horrid!)

This was no how-to-be-a-writer guide that required me to live my life as a loaded gun or end it with my tragically young head in an oven. It was a book full of anecdotes and kids and dogs and mishaps and references to books I already loved (Harriet the Spy!) and books I was sure I would love as soon as I read them. A big part of me, even though I was nearly grown, longed to be a child in this household. (Her children had wonderful names–the youngest was Elspeth–and they had a dog named Frodo! Who knew you could do that?) Since it was too late for me to have that kind of childhood, I dreamed that some day I might create such a life for the children I hoped to have.

The title is an allusion to Lewis Carroll’s “The Lobster Quadrille”:  “Turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance,” and this was the first book I read that suggested that the path to writing was not, in fact, to shut oneself up in a room with one’s demons but to enter into life as fully as possible and live to tell the tales. It probably doesn’t seem such radical stuff now, but for a good (read: “compliant”) student in the early 80s struggling with what she’d later know was anxiety and depression, the idea that there was a whole different way to learn about writing and to live as a writer than those I’d been taught was ground-shifting. Life-saving.

The librarian in me now would be perfectly fine with the younger me keeping this book.  (But you don’t have to steal it now. Amazon has multiple old copies available.)

(This was written in response to a Facebook challenge to post photos of the covers of 7 favorite books in 7 days with no commentary. Clearly, I’ve broken the no commentary rule–shocker! I’m not as compliant as I once was and tend not to follow rules that seem arbitrary. Who says the 7 days have to be in a row? And why 7? Not sure how many I’ll do. Feel free to nominate yourself for the challenge.)

Because “love” is a verb

george-small

Somehow, the events in Orlando made me mute. Maybe it’s that I was feeling so wrung out by the emotional roller-coaster I’ve been riding for the past two weeks months years, or maybe it’s that I am so weary of the ways in which we humans are so very horrible to each other, but I just felt that there was nothing meaningful for me to say.

And then I read these words from Jen Hatmaker about what it does to those who are terrorized by violence in their community when those of who are not in it say nothing:

“What my black friends taught me is that the ancillary offense, where grief is compounded and loneliness sets in, is when their friends and colleagues outside of their tribe say NOTHING. When their churches don’t stop and grieve. When their coworkers are silent. When their neighbors look the other way because they aren’t sure what to say, so they say nothing.”

And so, I wrote something about Orlando on Facebook. It still didn’t feel like enough, but it was something. I still felt demoralized and beat down and just so very, very sad–and as if words are not enough in the face of these incidents which I feel myself becoming numb to.

That feeling intensified when I watched this clip from Stephen Colbert, who reminds us that love is a verb.

I wanted to DO something, but I didn’t know what.

As is so often the case, I got my answer from a librarian. Librarian Arika, to be specific.  Librarian Arika reminded me of one of my bedrock beliefs–that stories have the power to save lives. That words matter.

(It is easy to lose faith in the face of horrible, bewildering events.)

Arika reminded me that when it comes to building acceptance of humankind, “literature can help.” She wondered,

“What if it was as simple as this: commit to read, promote, share, and purchase books that promote tolerance of race, gender, identity, religion, ability, and sexual orientation.”

And suddenly I knew what I could do–the thing that is my thing to do. I can join Arika’s movement (#BooksBuildTolerance). For the rest of the month, she is sharing one book a day that promotes tolerance and understanding.

Me, too.

I’m starting with a book I read last month that I adore: George by Alex Gino.

From the publisher:

When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part… because she’s a boy.

With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte — but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.

So, that’s what it’s about. I love this book not because it’s about a girl who is a boy, but because it is a tender, true, and important story about being human–which means being vulnerable, and scared, and brave, and bold. The characters are so real, from George/Melissa’s teen-age brother to their loving-but-not-completely-accepting mom. (“I always knew you were gay,” she says, “but not that kind of gay.”)

I love this book not because it is ground-breaking (though it is that) but because it is good writing. It’s not a book I chose for our elementary libraries because we needed a transgender book; I chose it because it’s a book any child who has ever felt different in some way could relate to. (And because it’s a transgender book and we have children in our schools who are struggling with that particular issue and they need to read a story in which they see themselves. And their cisgender friends need to see them in books, too. But first because it’s just a great book.)

This is not a very compelling review because I don’t have a copy with me and I’m tired and it’s late, but I think that doesn’t much matter.

Sometimes we’ve got to just do the best we can–because love is a verb and it’s important not only to not say nothing, but also to not do nothing. If you haven’t read George, check it out.

#BooksBuildTolerance.