Book Clubs for Kids

This past week I wrote a two-part article for Examiner.com about how to start and run a book club for kids or teenagers. I think that it turned out quite well and I wanted to point it out to my Pixiepalace readers as well! The first part (about how to get started) is here while the second part (with activity ideas and more) is here. Let me know if you have more ideas or suggestions!

Book: Dreams of the Dead

Dreams of the Dead
Thomas Randall
2009 (Bloomsbury)

Kara and her father have just moved to Japan so that her father can teach at a private school in an idyllic little Japanese town. Although everything seems perfect at first, Kara soon discovers that a grizzly murder occurred on the school grounds the term before they arrived and no suspects were ever arrested in the case. The victim was one of the students and her sister, who quickly becomes Kara’s friend, suspects that she was murdered by fellow schoolmates. Suddenly, several students begin having terribly nightmares (Kara included) and one by one kids start dying in mysterious ways. Kara and her friends set out to solve the mystery before every last one of them ends up dead.

The mystery in this book is pretty good. There are plenty of interesting interlocking clues, an appealing supernatural element, and enough kept hidden to keep the reader guessing. The problem is that parts of it don’t work. The justification for Kara getting the nightmares and being one of the intended targets is so weak that even the characters have trouble justifying it. While I appreciate that including her in the list of potential victims is an effective way of getting the heroine involved right away, it was possibly the biggest plot hole in the book and seriously hurt the mystery’s credibility throughout the entire story.

It’s very clear that the author of this book loves Japan, or at least his idealized version of it. Everything about the setting is carefully chosen and arranged, lovingly described. It’s almost like the author is describing is own perfect little fantasy world for us where cute Japanese girls in short-skirted sailor fuku uniforms pulled right out of the cheesiest animes attend school in ancient temples set among lush, picturesque natural settings. All this while still having all the conveniences of the modern world! It’s too perfect and too much of a western fantasy version of Japan. And the main character shares this fascination and almost worship of this perfect image.

This setting wasn’t believable in the least and felt weirdly paired with the ghost story mystery. While I appreciate the desire to connect the folkloric elements of the mystery with the feel of historical Japan, it just didn’t work for me. I felt like it was an interesting story being told by someone more interested in the perfect anime world than in the actual country of Japan or the actual folkloric elements of the story. I kept wondering why they didn’t search the internet for information on the supernatural creature, but that might have broken the pastoral, anime spell, so I’m not terribly surprised that they didn’t, even if it would have been the logical thing for cell-phone carrying teenagers in Japan to do.

I also want to comment on the cover of this book. I read an advanced reader copy that I received from the publisher and it has the cover shown above. This cover makes absolutely no sense. It’s photographic, which is pretty much all Bloomsbury ever uses, and it’s a white girl, which again, fits with their MO (much has been written about this lately in regards to the cover of Liar, so I’m not going to spend time on Bloomsbury’s typical practices other than to say they exist). The problem is, I can’t figure out what it’s supposed to be. This story takes place in Japan and only two characters in it are white – Kara and her father. Both of them are alive throughout the entire book and Kara not only never sleeps outside, but she’s not really a frilly type of girl (as the blond girl on the cover is dressed). There are several dead girls and sleep is an important theme, but all the dead girls are Japanese and, as I said, this blond girl in no way seems to have anything to do with Kara. I’m starting to wonder if Bloomsbury just pulls random stock art until they find something that matches the title and listed genre! The cover shown on the website is shown below in a thumbnail and at least matches the text, if not the genre or feel of the story. If I had to pick one of these two, I’d go with the one from the website, but I think they both suck.

This is an interesting book and a decent mystery, which is a genre that could always use more teen-specific titles. Still, it has a lot of problems and I’m not really sure that I could say that I recommend it. I wasn’t fond of this book at all. It’s the first in a series of three (either called The Waking or Gaijin Girl, I’m not sure which), although where the series is going exactly I have no idea. I’m certain there is an audience out there for this book (possibly somewhere among the manga-reading teens), but I really wouldn’t be comfortable recommending it. If you really like supernatural mysteries and have always wanted to live in an anime, this might be your book, but otherwise, I’d stay away.

- Publisher’s Description
- The Official The Waking Series Website

- Thomas Randall’s Website

- Buy it from Amazon

OMG! Girlz Don’t Need Games or Features!

Let’s play a game! Pretend you’re a girl and you’ve decided that you want to buy a handheld gaming system. You like gaming and would really like a system that’s portable and versatile (it has to have more and better gaming options than your cell phone, anyway). Luckily for you, Sony recently came out with a special campaign and product deal aimed at girls – Girlz Play Too. This is a special website to highlight a new PSP designed with girl gamers in mind! Sounds like just what you’re looking for, right? Let’s check it out!

There are several parts to the website, which is set apart from the rest of the Sony product website and not easy to find from there (because clearly the boy part of the website needs to be kept completely unaware that this girl part even existed or the industry would collapse). To start with, there are the products themselves, which is nice since you’re here to shop. The Lilac colored PSP is only available in the “Hannah Montana PSP Entertainment Pack”, meaning you get the Hannah Montana: Rock Out the Show game and a video with three episodes from the Hannah Montana show with the system and there isn’t any way to buy a purple PSP without them. But that’s such a girly game, I certainly can’t imagine there being anyone who might not want the mediocre Hannah Montana game but still want a Lilac colored PSP, can you? Ok, so the game is cool and you’re excited about the cute color of the system, but this is a fairly major purchase so you should make sure it’s worth it before you buy.

So, you like the look of the Lilac PSP, but need a little more convincing. You probably want to be able to play more than just the Hannah Montana game, right? Not much point in buying the $200 system for only one game, anyway. So what other games are available? Well, Sony is happy to tell you! The Girlz Play Too website has a section called “Games Girlz Play”. (For some reason, “girls” is perpetually spelled with a “z” – I have no idea why, but it’s a common and annoying thing in the gaming world and seems to be a misguided attempt to seem cool to girls while really being incredibly patronizing.) Unfortunately, there are apparently only six PSP games that Sony could find in their entire PSP library that are appropriate for girls: the aforementioned Hannah Montana game, Patapon 2, LocoRoco 2, Petz Dogz Family, Ponyo Fantasy Golf and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (the movie tie-in game). No other games are listed, nor is there a link anywhere to the library of PSP games suggesting that there even might be more options.

Well, it’s starting to look like this wouldn’t be such a hot $200 investment (a library of six games, and not even six super awesome games, hardly makes it worth the price). Maybe it has other cool features, right? So you click on the tab labeled “Explore the Features of the PSP “. This page is lilac colored and draws itself out as if with pencils before resolving into photographs of a girl surrounded by PSPs doing different things. Hovering over the images one at a time tells you that your PSP can “download games, movies and more” (no details are provided), “view your photos in a cool slide show” (no idea how the photos get on the PSP in the first place), “talk to friends with Skype ” and there are some video trailers of games that play when hovered over. No details are given for any of this and, considering the pages of features listed for PSPs on the regular (for boys) site, you start to wonder if your PSP is somehow less powerful than those, because even your cell phone has a better list of features than this.

Ok, so it’s not looking good for your lilac PSP. But there are two more tabs, so maybe Sony can still convince you. It seemed like a good idea, right? The next tab is “Customize Your Very Own PSP System”. That sounds cool. If you could really design your own case for the handheld system that would be awesome! There are lots of patterns and overlay images and colors to choose from and you really can make your own design. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean anything. All you can do with it is upload it to a gallery. The real PSPs all look the same (although supposedly they come with stickers to personalize them). So, no luck there.

One more tab, one more try. The last tab says “Which game character are you?” Um… ok. It’s a quiz full of questions like “you’re planning a weekend with your friends, what sounds like the most fun?” and “when you fill out your diary, you…” At the end, you are told what game character (from the six girl games) you are most like. So, the quiz is cute, but also really stereotyped (BFFs and shopping and all that) and seems to have no point other than to suggest a game you should play (out of the only six girl games that exist in the PSP library).

Hmm… well… ok… so as cute as the lilac PSP is (and it is pretty cute), and even though you’re a girl and you do play too, it just doesn’t seem like this is going to work. I mean, why spend the $200 on a PSP which has only six games you could play and so few features when you could spend less than $150 on a cute pink or blue or red or whatever color you want Nintendo DS which has tons of games that are good for girls? The lilac was nice, but there just isn’t enough there to make it worth it! Being a girl doesn’t mean you need fewer or less awesome games and features. Maybe if Sony makes or finds more good games or includes a more widely appealing game with the system it would be worth it, but right now it feels like they’ve aimed for a very specific target and still missed the mark. Oh well, no big loss for us since right now there are other options!

Check out The Learned Fangirl

I guest posted over at The Learned Fangirl this week. Go check it out! And while you’re there, read through some of the other awesome stuff on the blog. It’s full of great posts and I highly recommend it!

Power Fantasies

Power fantasies are a big deal these days. As much as videogames might come under attack from the media and activist groups, they also draw in new players from all around the world every year and many games are understood to be such fantasies. Tons of research has been done on power struggles in social interactions and communications (Deborah Tannen is the best writer I know of on this subject) and superheroes like Spider-Man and Superman are often seen as healthy male power fantasies. In short, we understand that men want to be strong and able to beat up bad guys and save the world. And if you think about it, the appeal is pretty easy to see. Why wouldn’t a guy want to be someone who’s able to be always in control, always able to protect the people he loves and unquestionably always on the side of right? So here’s the tricky question: what is a woman’s power fantasy?

The feminist answer would be “the same thing”, but the reality is always more complicated than that. Yes, women want those things too. That pretty much goes without saying. Except, sadly, it needs saying because many people don’t understand that a woman would want to protect her loved ones and be able to retain control of a situation and be always doing the right thing as well. So the question becomes, why do women want those things too? More than that, why do women need them?

Something that I forget a lot of times is that while women live lives always having to be somewhat on alert, always careful, men not only don’t have to do that, but they very often aren’t even aware that women do. Jennifer de Guzman wrote a brilliant post on her LiveJournal about this that really articulates it well:

As I wrote in my reply, I am kind of astounded that some men don’t see why physical empowerment would clearly be attractive for women. I think it’s intriguing to note that women often like the hot women who kick ass as much, if not more, than men do. Here’s what I think is behind that: As women, we are nearly constantly aware of physical threats. And those threats often are of being violated sexually. When I used to go to campus for night classes and people warned me to “be careful,” what they are saying was, essentially, “avoid getting raped.”

Now, what if, what if, as a woman, you could walk around, be sexually attractive and not have to feel threatened? What if all the rage you feel about women being victimized and brutalized could be channeled into pure, righteous ass-kicking? And, because you’re a woman, you could possibly do that ass-kicking without being seen as a testosterone Steven-Seagal-esque meathead. Ass-kicking fantasies for men are more about proving and retaining power, I think. For women, they’re about finding and asserting power when they’re not expected to have any.

That’s exactly it. That’s a really big reason why women, and even little girls, need power fantasies and superheroes of their own. But as brilliant as this post was, what made me really think about this was the reaction it elicited from Michael May over at Amazon Princess:

That makes so much sense I’m ashamed I never thought of it, at least not in those terms. I’ve been operating under the hypothesis that the attraction of Wonder Woman for women has a lot to do with confidence (and argued that that also makes her attractive to men – or at least to men like me), but Jennifer’s thoughts go deeper than that and explore at least one of the reasons why Wonder Woman can afford to be so confident. She’s gorgeous and she can damn well take care of herself.

So, yes, women do want and need superheroes. Little girls need superheroes. This isn’t to say that boys don’t need them, but why can’t we have both? If there can be three ongoing comics at the same time about Batman’s adventures in Gotham, surly there can be a little more room for real superheroines! There are so few comics highlighting superheroines (and at the rate Marvel’s going, fewer all the time) and the ones that do exist often feel like the neglected side projects that either got hastily put together while the writers focus on their real stories or are assigned to second-string artists and writers and never promoted in any way, giving them no chance to gain a real following. Even flagship characters get dropped and forgotten (how many times has Spider-Girl lost her book? when was the last time one of the DC editors even mentioned Wonder Woman’s book publicly?).

Women deserve more heroes. We deserve more games with heroes we can see ourselves in (and yes, if you read the above you’ll see that we do like them beautiful, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they all have to be naked and have DD-cup breasts, beauty is more complicated than that). We deserve more comics with kick-ass heroines. We deserve heroines with real female friendships, since women do occasionally interact with each other. I’d love – *LOVE* – to read a comic that passed the Bechdel Test, but since Birds of Prey ended I haven’t found one. I’d love to see as many little girls running around pretending to be Batgirl, Spider-Girl, Wonder Woman and Supergirl as I see little boys running around pretending to be Spider-Man, Superman, the Hulk and Batman. Maybe if more guys saw that girls could be heroes, more women would actually be safer in real life too. You never know.

Why I Think “Pretending You Care” is Great

Pretending You Care: The Retail Employee Handbook
Norm Feuti
2007 (Hyperion)

I worked in retail for a very long time (almost ten years, starting when I was in high school), and like most people who have done so, I can tell you that it’s a very mixed experience. In some ways it’s really nice – you have flexible hours, often you can have a lot of fun with your co-workers, and very occasionally you get to feel like you really, honestly helped someone. In a lot of ways it’s not so nice – you don’t actually get paid that much and still have to clean up weird things sometimes, retail stores don’t have holidays off so you almost certainly have to work at least some of them, and many, many customers treat retail employees like they are some kind of incompetent hired help that need only be barely tolerated and certainly not treated as human.

Still, we live in a consumer society that has yet to completely forgo the need for brick-and-mortar stores with flesh-and-blood customer service employees to wait on customers hand and foot. As much as I would love to be able to get corporations to realize and appreciate the value of their first-line customer service representatives and salespeople, that’s not going to happen any time soon (in fact, it seems to get worse rather than better every day). Likewise, I’d like to convince customers to keep in mind that the people behind the counters and on the sales floor wearing name tags are normal, regular people just like them who deserve respect. I’d like for it to become understood that when you treat someone well, they will be more likely to give you better service, even if they never meant to give you poor service in the first place. People just like being treated with respect and respond to it.

The best book that I’ve ever found speaking to the experience of working in retail is Pretending You Care: The Retail Employee Handbook by Norm Feuti. It is funny and packed full of useful information about working in retail environments. Feuti sprinkles the book with excerpts from the run of his comic strip, Retail, which focuses on the staff of a fictional department store and the things that happen to them. Feuti uses stories from his own experiences working retail as well as stories submitted from readers in creating the comic and that wealth of knowledge clearly contributed to the book as well. The book covers everything from getting hired to the different aspects of the job itself and even common retail myths. There’s even a section on retail employee etiquette (“How Not to Be the One Everybody Hates”).

One thing that I wish is that I had known more about what I was getting into when I started working in retail when I was fifteen. This book would have been perfect. It’s a fun, easy read and it speaks directly to the reader about things that will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked retail. I would absolutely give this book to any teenager working retail, even if they’ve been doing it for a while. Even for the retail veteran, it’s a good read and sort of a comfort. It assures you that your experiences aren’t unique, that the good and the bad of retail happen everywhere, and that maybe if you can laugh at it the bad days won’t be so depressing. And when you’re a teenager, it’s a lot harder to believe that things aren’t depressing or that you aren’t alone. I think this book might even make more of a difference to some teenagers (and even some adults) than Feuti even imagined.

People are what they are. I don’t see customers, as a group, changing for the better any time real soon. There are gems and they stand out and make your day. I still have favorite customers and moments from my experiences that I’m sure I will remember for years to come while most of the bad customers are forgotten. Still, the fact that most hours consisted of ten customers dismissing me out of hand as useless or stupid while one spoke to me as a person isn’t forgotten even if the faces themselves are. In my experience, most retail employees really do care and really are trying to do the best they can, but sometimes, you just have to plaster on a smile and pretend. That’s when you need this book to remind you that you aren’t alone.

- Publisher’s Description
- The Official Retail Community

- Norm Feuti’s Blog

- Buy it from Amazon

Book: Babymouse the Musical

Babymouse the Musical
Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
2009 (Random House)

Babymouse has tried her hand at dodgeball, band and even figure skating, so clearly it’s time for her next challenge. When a new student suggests she try out for the school musical, Babymouse decides to go for it! Henry, her new friend, helps her prepare, but in true Babymouse fashion, things never quite go exactly as planned.

The Babymouse books are brilliant and this one is no different. There are great side plots (like the squid in Babymouse’s locker revealing itself to be the “Phantom of the Locker” who steals everyone’s homework) and fun trips through Babymouse’s imagination. The references in this book are, unsurprisingly, almost entirely drawn from musicals, but they still manage to range from The Lion King to American Idol to A Chorus Line. The mix is fun, entertaining and works especially well for the book.

One of the things that I found most interesting in this particular book was how involved the narrator got. The narrator in this series has a very distinct voice and has developed quite a bit of personality over the course of the series, but in this volume the narrator got a whole song! Narrators are not only pretty rare in graphic novels, but I can’t even think of another one with so much personality (at least, not one that isn’t also a character). The narrator in Babymouse does more than move the story along, it is a complement to Babymouse herself. It has a snarky voice that parallels Babymouse’s and gives her someone to play off of. The narrator is really part of the unique charm of these books.

Babymouse the Musical is a fun romp through all things musical theater. From Cats to Annie, Babymouse can do it all. A fun new character is introduced and hope that he sticks around, at least showing up once in a while in future books, because he was different from the rest of the cast. The regular players were all here, though, and the story was fun to read. I definitely recommend this title, but I think it will be even more fun if you’ve read some of the previous books in the series. Babymouse is still one of the best graphic novel series I’ve read!

- Publisher’s Description
- The Official Babymouse Website

- Jennifer L. Holm’s Website
- Matthew Holm’s Blog

- Buy it from Amazon