The Tigerlily False Equivalency Issue

In case you haven’t heard, Hollywood wants to remake everything. That isn’t new. And, in the view of big producers remaking old things as “gritty” and “x-treme!” new things, we have a new rendition of Peter Pan. Again. That hasn’t made much in the way of headlines, because A.) more people want to see Angelina Jolie in Meleficent and B.) Once Upon a Time already does “gritty”, YA-friendly retellings of Peter Pan et al, so who cares? Plus, I just think this market has kind of worn out its welcome. At first it was cool, what with our Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but now, now that we have “x-treme!” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and “x-treme” live-action Disney cartoons, the genre of “it was old and now it’s new and grownup and filmed in HD” is not really that cool. People didn’t embrace Robocop and Total Recall, and I haven’t seen anyone getting terribly stoked about the new Peter Pan.

That being said, it did make headlines for casting a white woman as Princess Tigerlily.

Rooney Mara. Authentic.

Rooney Mara. Authentic.

So, here we go again, the endless battle of racial casting. The usual arguments are as follows: “But, it should be about the talent, not the race! It’s just casting who’s best!”

And then we get The Last Airbender and The Lone Ranger, and clearly, no, there is no way what we got is the best. Airbender is unwatchable, and Lone Ranger just has Depp being Jack Sparrow again. Clearly this is not a meritocracy. It’s more of a stuff-producers-and-board-rooms-thought-would-sell-best-ocracy. So, capitalism. And you thought Hollywood was progressive, ha!

But, actually, a lot of people have been defending this casting decision, including a weird, Buzzfeed-style article from NPR. Seriously, first NetGeo went all Swamp People on us, and now my beloved bastion of pretention has started emulating the stuff I look up when I want to see pictures of French bulldog puppies? What’s next, putting One Direction in a Tiny Desk Concert? You leave Tiny Desk Concerts alone, evil boy bands!

Anyway, for those of you who actually pay attention to NPR (all 9 of us…) and know about it from something other than what does the FOX say, you know it’s really not a leftist station. Unless you think BBC collaboration is grossly left wing for not saying Obama is a Nigerian terrorist Muslim atheist child molester, in which case you are insane. Most of NPR is devoted to classical and underground music, trivia, car talk, Prairie Home Companion, interviews with artists and writers, discussions about the history of the world’s greatest cheese (possibly the best episode of anything ever). It’s more likely to tell you about all the craft beers you can drink at a rally than to tell you to rally. Unless you’re rallying behind craft beer. Is it perhaps more likely to appeal to someone sipping a latte in an indie café while reading Bitch Magazine than FOX’s demographic? Yes, but that’s hardly the only audience that tunes in to NPR. Although, I admit that it suffers from excessive gentrification at times, it also gives voice to unknown folk, country, and blues singers from down home places who may never have otherwise had a platform. So, I don’t know that you can say there is an NPR crowd other than the fact that it doesn’t actively fight to exclude the latte-sipper-Bitch-reader-in-indie-café the way FOX does. If anything, what you can expect is a lot of art and culture, a fascinating crossection of Americana, lots and lots of classical and opera performances, car talk, and some generally smart, solid programming, so what the hell is with this buzzfeed crap? (Says the person who inserts excessive pictures into all her posts to casually attempt at driving up hits…)

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!

Anyway, I think the argument is thus: If you’re upset about this, are you also going to be upset at casting minor comic characters as black when they were originally white? Are you upset that the newest Phantom is black? Or that stage show Aladdin is Filipino?

And, I get where they’re coming from to an extent. Tigerlily isn’t exactly an iconic Native American character. Her tribe isn’t real, and is in fact named after a really racist word (no really). And, it’s not like the Disney cartoon isn’t, you know, offensive.

Straight-up racist. Sorry, but I'm calling it.

Straight-up racist. Sorry, but I’m calling it.

There, I said it. It’s an offensive representation. I’m always shocked when someone comes up and says, “Oh, Beauty and the Beast is SOOOO offensive! There’s a fleeting image of a pastor in the crowd when Gaston was going to marry Belle, because who ever heard of pastors at weddings? Offensive! And the father isn’t portrayed as a god-like figure of pure amazaballs! That’s offensive stereotyping!!!!” and then says, “Oh, don’t be so hypersensitive about Peter Pan. They’re only gross stereotypes of an entire people. Stop being so Politically Correct.”

I’ve come to a conclusion about Political Correctness:

If it affects the person speaking, it’s not Political Correctness, it’s decency! It’s morals! It’s family values!

If it doesn’t affect the person speaking, it’s Political Correctness, tyranny, and Hitler!

Pictured here: A popular representation of political correctness.

Pictured here: A popular representation of political correctness.

What’s weird is that almost every time someone invokes the ol’ PC it has exactly jack to do with being PC. What’s the political bent here? Real PC talk is like refusing to discuss money in politics, calling rich people “job creators”, and other forms of politicized language. What we’re referring to is just manners. It’s just being decent toward someone else and not caricaturing them as something sub-human, which, if you’re going to do any Nazi comparisons, is way, way, way more apt. Nostalgia doesn’t exempt someone from being respectful. You can’t be like, “Oh, I thought it was funny to laugh at Stepin Fetchit as a kid. So, that must be totally okay, you PC Nazis!” That works about as well as saying, “Oh, I enjoyed staring at people in sideshows! Therefore The Elephant Man is a liberal Nazi Hitler PC movie for making me recognize the humanity of people I just wanna stare at and mock!”

How dare you tell me to care about someone other than myself and my gross entitlement complex? You PC Hitler!

How dare you tell me to care about someone other than myself and my gross entitlement complex? You PC Hitler!

Also, stop invoking Hitler, people.

There actually is a difference between casting a black Phantom or a black Nick Fury, and casting a white Native American or Asian character. And, here’s why. We do not have a shortage of white actors in roles. Most of our heroes, romantic leads, and overall casts are white. Even in good movies, like Her, we’ve apparently conceived a very white future. If you’re a white actor, you are only limited by the number of other white actors you’re competing against. It’s not like there are only a handful of decent roles for you, and the rest of the time you’ll be in some niche like Tyler Perry movies or direct to DVD fare, or low-budget arthouse selections that will pay you in pennies while the director sells organs to get a single theatrical release. And, the majority of our celebrity coverage is also of white Hollywood.

So, when a white role is given to an actor of a different ethnicity, it’s not taking away from a tiny pool of representation, and it’s not taking one of the few jobs an actor can get. It’s not like when Nick Fury became a black character that was the only role for white people. The entire Avengers ensemble is white!

Furthermore, there is history to consider. Who has told the stories? Whose voices get heard the loudest? In cases of Native American representation, they have been cast by white people in circuses and mock train robberies to play “savages”.They have been cast as antagonists for cowboy heroes. They have been cast as hippies for a yuppie earth-love analogue of bourgeois values. There is a long history of appropriating and defining their culture as whatever white people want it to be.

Historical 12 year old becomes sexy babe, for instance...

Historical 12 year old becomes sexy babe, for instance…

However, how often do we see Native American roles? Really. Ask yourself that. And, how often in roles when the race is incidental, like a rom-com heroine, a scientist, an action star, do we see Native actors just getting cast? Are you saying that Native American peoples just cannot act, that acting just isn’t a thing they can do? The fact is, when you give a Native Role to a white person, it’s not the same as casting a black Phantom. It’s not the same because there are hardly any Native Roles written, for anyone.

It’s also not the same because Phantom of the Opera is a stage show, so there are many, many chances for people to play the title role, in many productions. Plenty of white people have played the Phantom. Most. Pretty much all. This is only making the news because it’s the first time on Broadway, maybe ever, that he hasn’t been white. Also, stage shows don’t follow the same rules as movies. People bend gender, race, age, et cetera, all the time. While there is a lack of representation for particular groups, and I wish every talented actor could be cast fairly, it’s much more fluid than movies. You can cast a 47 year old woman as a teenaged boy in an opera. But, you can’t cast white people as Asian people in Cloud Atlas and have it not be incredibly uncomfortable and scary as hell. Film demands more verisimilitude.

Gah! The people of Innsmouth! Run away!

Gah! The people of Innsmouth! Run away!

And, again, the argument that Tigerlily isn’t a good role kind of doesn’t… work at all. What, you’re saying the source material and other adaptations are racist, so we have to be racist? I thought these were supposed to be reboots. Are we not rebooting the character, just keeping the stereotype? Why? Why do that? Why bother rebooting at all if you think the original should just be left alone? What is the point of that?

And, lastly, I think that producers don’t give audiences enough credit. They have really strict ideas about what audiences will and will not watch. They think that boys won’t follow the adventures of girls, and it was a cliché truism until The Hunger Games and everyone proved them wrong. Which, if you have ever encountered human beings outside of a very strict bubble, you already knew. Little boys have long been just fine with stories about girls, like Pippi Longstocking, which was a favorite when I worked in children’s libraries. A favorite of more boys than girls, actually.

Gee, I wonder why?

Gee, I wonder why?

 

People also think that America will only watch white people, so they do things like make the racially diverse Avatar the Last Airbender a white vs. Indian/Middle Eastern story.

Aang-Katara-avatar-the-last-airbender-26506247-720-480

 

A once racially diverse cast becomes a film about white kids being menaced by evil, Middle Eastern men.

A once racially diverse cast becomes a film about white kids being menaced by evil, Middle Eastern men.

And, yes, I know that Zuko becomes good. But, that’s not really the point, especially since there won’t be any sequels to the movie. The point is, the show has many fans, and they love it, and they love the characters, and they don’t want to see a bunch of bad child-actors shoved into roles that that shouldn’t fill. Not only shouldn’t they fill the roles because they are bad actors, but also because these aren’t white roles. Part of what people love about the show is its world-building, and it is built on distinctly non-white culture. This is just what the show is. Casting white actors just feels like cultural appropriation. It also just looks silly.

Similarly, audiences didn’t love Jack Sparrow Tonto, and that movie was an enormous disaster.

When Hollywood has occasionally rebooted material with black actors in what had been white roles, it’s also not a role contingent on race. The Karate Kid’s race is incidental. And, there’s nothing about being an orphan that makes Annie inherently white. But, Tigerlily and Tonto are specifically written as Native American characters. The Karate Kid and Annie are not played in white-face, and the characters are not representing some specific part of white history. They’re just kids, and kids are everywhere. Tigerlily and Tonto cannot be played as white, because the characters are Native American. It isn’t like having a black Karate Kid. It’d be like having a black John Smith, where race is in fact integral to what we are representing. Or, in terms of fiction, a black Snow White doesn’t work, for obvious reasons. If your character is written as inherently a specific race, then the actor doesn’t just make the role his or her own. The actor has to appropriate the race, and it is awkward. Depp didn’t play a role that had once been played by a Native actor. He played a role that is a Native character, and that is the difference between this and other race-bent reboots.

Tonto-depp

I don’t think that the meritocracy argument works, mostly because it isn’t a meritocracy. But, even if it was, it hinges on the idea that only a white actor would be best for the part. There are plenty of white actors who are very talented, and there are many roles for them, but to say that they also need the roles of other races is to imply that other races aren’t as talented. Yeah, Roony Mara is a great actress, and she may have done really well reading for Tigerlily, but does that mean that no one else could do as well in the role?

It isn’t as if Tonto or Tigerlily are especially great Native American roles. But, with so few Native Roles, and Hollywood’s disinclination to cast non-race-specific roles with diverse actors, there are only so many opportunities for work. This isn’t an issue of whether or not it’s okay for these stars to play race-bent roles, but whether or not other actors are able to get work at all.

My question is: did the filmmakers even try?

 

And this brings me to a recent pseudo-news, celebrity faux pas story about Heidi Klum, who recently dressed up like a historically inaccurate “sexy squaw” stereotype for a German reality show.

Also, this photo sucks. It's too posed and silly, and it looks like a bad instagram pic that should be captioned with lyrics to an Owl City song.

Also, this photo sucks. It’s too posed and silly, and it looks like a bad instagram pic that should be captioned with lyrics to an Owl City song.

Although I don’t think German reality TV ever needs to be news, any more than American reality TV or British reality TV or any reality TV, what interested me was the reaction. People were outraged, not over Klum’s “redface”, but over the fact that anyone considered it racist. People were quick to point out that, you see, Americans just don’t get that Germany has a tradition of seeing Native American people in this way.

Because we all know that if Germany has a traditional view of a particular race, it’s best to follow that view without question. I don’t remember a time that has ever been racist in the slightest…

However, this does bring up an interesting point. The argument isn’t whether or not the people represented care, but whether or not white America or white Germany are the best white people in this white person argument. The voice of the Native American people doesn’t matter.

This is regularly the argument behind race issues, that white liberals are just whining and other white people should do their thing. The only people whose possible offence is even questioned are white. The idea that someone from another race might actually have opinions about how they are represented is never questioned. Which, for the record, they do.

Another reaction I saw was that if people like Heidi Klum do not dress up as stereotypes of Native American culture, then the Native American peoples will only be represented by casinos. In other words, Native Americans don’t have a culture anymore. They’re just poor. And, white people now rightfully own all that is attractive about their culture and can appropriate it as such.

Because a long tradition of romanticizing Native Americans has never led to anything bad.

The fact is, Native American voices do exist. There are actors, artists, writers. If you are more familiar with a white woman in feathers than you are with Zitkala-Ša, Leslie Marmon Silko, Mary Brave Bird, and Sherman Alexie, then it’s not that Native American culture is missing but that you’re systematically ignoring it.

Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite people of all time and author of Fahrenheit 451, once said: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

By not knowing these writers, or artists, or employing actors to represent their own people, you’re silencing the culture. It isn’t that casinos and silly modeling reality shows are all that are left for Native Americans. It’s hard to read, so let’s just watch Heidi Klum take sexy pictures for a reality show.

The greatest sin a person can commit these days is asking someone to care about something. The best way to bring on rage is to say, “Maybe you should eat something that doesn’t hurt the environment, or be more energy efficient, or not commoditize a person based on sexual appeal in order to sell beer, or not sexualize young girls, or not support exploitative businesses, or care about the representation of a people.” It doesn’t cause people to change oh-so-much to say that maybe Heidi Klum’s bad photoshoot was also pretty racist, or that maybe we should actually start casting Native American actors. But, even this small amount of change is enough to send people into a rage of tooth-gnashing and pants-wetting.

But, in the end, these aren’t abstracts that white liberals and white conservatives do or do not care about. These are issues about people, people who have their own voices and cares, and whose culture is very real.

It’s not that they don’t have a voice. It’s whether or not anyone is listening.

 

 

 

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Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books, 4

Press Here by Herve Tullet

press here

It’s an interactive book that isn’t!

Let me explain, while the book instructs readers to press dots, shake the pages, and so on, the book actually doesn’t change. The dynamic graphic designs, however, do give the impression that the book is coming alive in your hands. It’s about as close to having a magic book as you can get!

dot

press-here3

That’s really the whole thing. You shake the book and the dots change. Which is surprisingly entertaining and beautiful. Think cool, experimental minimalist art project for children.

Age Level: Really any age, since it’s the sort of book that can be adapted to suit whatever the reader wants.

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=press+here&class=

Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Barbara Firth

little bear

Like the other Martin Waddell book on the list, Owl Babies, this one deals with a typical children’s problem, the inability to sleep in the dark. And, like Owl Babies, Waddell doesn’t downplay this problem as no big deal. In fact, the entire story feels kind of grand and epic, this increasing quest to find the perfect nightlights and the eventual contemplation of the moon in the night sky. Also, like Owl Babies, it’s a comforting story where the baby character eventually feels safe. It was a favorite story in my house, and I remember my little sister asking for it again and again when we were kids.

The illustrations are really charming and sweet without being cutesy. The bear’s cave is part actual cave part recognizable children’s bedroom, and, kind of like Miss Suzy’s house, I remember wanting to live there. The gentle, muted colors, clean line work, and increasing light from the lanterns helps create this cozy, moody feeling that kind of perfectly works for a bedtime story. Plus, it has bears. I love bears.

bear2

 

Age level: Pre-K and up

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=can%27t+you+sleep+little+bear%3F&class=

Stagecoach Sal by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Carson Ellis

sal3

Stagecoach Sal is a beautiful Western adventure story. I discovered it through library work and was delighted with the way it blended folk art illustrations and some fun adventure.

I absolutely love Carson Ellis as an illustrator and fine artist, and her work here is stellar, full of her beautiful linework details, smooth coloring, and charming characters. Like several others on this list, I would hang these illustrations on my wall. In fact, I actually own a poster by Carson Ellis, although it’s for a Decemberists concert and not from this book. Needless to say, she’s one of my very favorite illustrators!

stagecoach

Stagechoach Sal is also based on a true story, so it’s one of those educational books that also works as a genuinely fun read.

Age level: K+

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/2-9781423111498-4

ABCs by Charley Harper

charlie-harper

If you’re an illustration fan and want to find a really beautiful and unusual alphabet book, this one is pretty incredible. I love the designs, the simple shapes the form the images, the color planes, the balance of the figures… These are, again, works that I would buy as prints. But, they also make really pleasing illustrations for the alphabet.

e

The images are colorful and charming, with pictures of animals for each letter. Unlike many alphabet books, it doesn’t try to be cutesy or really attention grabbing. It’s very calm, and seems to take kids very seriously.

dog

I think a lot of adults have really gotten into this book, which, considering it has barely any text other than the alphabet, is kind of saying something. The images are just really beautiful.

He also has a similar 1 2 3s book and book of colors, both of which are beautiful.

Age level: pre-k, board book

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9781934429075-9

Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books, 3

Continuing with gorgeous kids’ books!

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

Harold_and_the_Purple_Crayon_(book)

This is one of those extremely special books that seem to have a lot of fond memories attached. I think many of us grew up with this story and felt kind of inspired by it. It’s about a little boy who uses art to create an adventure for himself. How awesome is that?

harolds-purple-crayon

The illustrations are fantastic, and extremely dynamic since the character is actually drawing them as the story progresses. They encourage kids to see art in a variety of different ways and to express themselves creatively. Drawing just seems so exciting and even a little dangerous and thrilling.

johnson_450

It’s a smart, creative story that seems to inspire kids with each generation. And, it’s also just a cool book. It’s one of those kids’ books that you find tattooed on adults, turned into theatrical productions, and given Dr. Who parodies (all of which you can find with a quick google search).

Age level: pre-k and up, and available as board book

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=harold+and+the+purple+crayon&class=

Franklin Stein by Ellen Raskin

franklin
This is a wonderful, little-known book from the Newberry Award winning author of The Westing Game. It’s about an eccentric little boy who makes a giant monster sculpture. People really dislike his work, at first, and Franklin has to prove that his art is actually beautiful.

As a former art major, this might have struck home a little…

But, anyway, stories about kids learning how to express their creative voices, even if people don’t really “get” them, are always on my radar as good reads. This book, with Raskin’s witty, award-winning writing style and quirky, retro illustrations, is also just a really entertaining story.
And, again, the illustrations are wonderful. They’re very retro, “groovy” even, with fun character designs and fantastic details.

beautiful

And, again, it’s about creative arts –strange, monstrous creative arts!

fred

I think it’s really moving that Franklin just wants everyone to see his art, the monster Fred, as beautiful, and how he sticks to his belief that Fred is beautiful. That’s pretty inspirational, right there.

Age level: reading about K and up, but I think younger children would listen to the story and like the pictures.

Available for purchase: Out of print, but here’s a link to used copies. http://www.alibris.com/Franklin-Stein-Ellen-Raskin/book/2443301

Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

Books-Blueberries-for-Sal-Bk-252-731by607_9

Blueberries for Sal was always a favorite in my house. It’s just the kind of book that really works well with kids. It has a charming setting (blueberry picking with mom), a little danger (someone else loves blueberries, too!), and a great repeated refrain of berry-picking sounds that kids love to repeat! Kerplink, kerplink, kerplunk! Who doesn’t like shouting that?
I really like kids’ books that have a sort of gentle quality and leave out trying to be hip and snarky. I like it when kids’ books let kids just be… kids. It’s a special time when blueberry picking with mom is a huge adventure, and we have all of adulthood to be hip and snarky. We need more blueberry picking days.

blueberries for sal2

I also like how there’s *spoilers?* two sets of moms and babies. You see, that someone else who likes blueberries is a bear cub! (I may have a thing for bears. I looked at my list of kids’s books and I was like, wow, bears, everywhere!) It’s a really great message because while there’s still a strong sense that bears are wild creatures, you also can really see the similarities between Sal’s adventure and the baby bear’s adventure. They’re both in search of the same things in the story, and that’s actually kind of a profound message.

blueberries for sal3

Also, the illustrations are amazing! The characters are charming and friendly, the scenery beautiful. I love the simple line drawings and the texture. They’re just delightful pictures, and, like Where Is My Hat?, I would hang prints on my wall!

Age level: Pre-k and up

Available to Purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780670175918-0

Ghosts In the House by Kazuno Kohara

ghosts

It’s no secret among those who know me that I love scary things. Even as a little kid, I loved scary stories. However, I also love really gentle, sweet kids’ books. So, when the two are combined, I get very happy. That’s the case in this book.

kohara

It’s about a little witch who discovers her house is infested with ghosts, like one might have an infestation of moths. So, since ghosts in this story are literally animated sheets, she washes them and puts them to use in her house. Which is absurdly hilarious.

The story about facing fears is very similar to There’s Something In My Attic, and as a kid who regularly gave herself nightmares by watching scary movies, I really appreciate this kind of moral. Now, I’ve heard some complaints about how the book supposedly is about exploiting others, like the ghosts are her slaves or something. To that I say, please! You’re taking it too seriously. It is literally and truly about ghosts, and the only moral here has to do with not being afraid. I mean, the ghosts are sheets with faces and she washes them, that’s not meant to be any colonolial symbolism or subliminal message about exploitation. Why can’t a ghost just be a ghost? And also a bed sheet?

kohara_ghosts3

I love the illustrations. They’re bold, extremely cute, and really creative, and I love the simple, bold designs. And the little witch and her cat are just adorable characters. Even the ghosts are pretty cute, with their simple, little smiles and dot eyes. That’s just adorable!

Age level: pre-K and up

Available to Purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780312608866-1

Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky

rapunzel-by-paul-o-zelinsky-isbn-05

It may be obvious by now that my tastes in illustrations are kind of minimalist. I like the balance of figures on uncluttered backgrounds, and the drama of few lines. But, just as I like the sketchy pen work in There’s Something In My Attic and Owl Babies, I cannot resist this book. I mean, it’s illustrated in the style of the Italian Renaissance. How can this not be amazing? I used to love showing this to kids at the library and blowing their minds.

tower

Talk about taking children’s books seriously! These illustrations are mind-blowing, steeped in a strong understanding of both art history and just masterful technique. I’m really glad he went for this style instead of some hokey photorealism, which usually looks creepy, in my opinion. Instead, the images are dream-like and magical –like fairytales themselves!

zel

The story isn’t dumbed down, either. Kids don’t usually pick it up, but, yeah, Rapunzel gets pregnant in the original fairytale. That’s how she gets discovered by the witch. I’m not kidding. I remember the first time I realized that was a plot point, and it’s not one you’ll see in Tangled, that’s for sure. And, that’s pretty much what happens in this version, although Rapunzel and the Prince are secretly married at this point. Plus, there’s thorn-blinding, kidnapping, wandering in the wilderness… It’s epic, heavy stuff for kids.

hair

But, that just seems fitting, considering the epic, heavy illustrations. And, I have yet to see a kid who wasn’t enchanted and inspired by the story.

Don Bluth, the man behind Land Before Time and other classic kids’ films, once said that you can show a child anything as long as there’s a happy ending. Classic fairytales seem to do just that, what with their high body counts, dark subject matter, and struggles for the protagonists. But, the payoff, that happy ending, just makes it so worth it!

Age Level: It’s difficult to say. The language seems like grade school and up, but the pictures are so beautiful that I’ve seen non-reading kids entranced by the story.

Available to purchase:  http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780142301937-2

Beautiful, Unusual Children’s Books Cont.

There’s Something In My Attic by Mercer Mayer

attic

I love Mercer Mayer’s illustrations most of the time, but this was one of my all-time favorite books as a small child. Part of this was because the protagonist is blond, and so, in the strange way very young children understand books, I thought the story was about me.

But aside from me pre-K belief that someone had projected my soul into a book, this is actually a really good story. It’s about a little girl who thinks that there is a monster in her attic. And so she captures it. And then they become friends. It’s one of those perfect blends of slightly scary, enough for kids who are afraid of monsters to relate, as well as empowering and cute. It doesn’t discredit the imagination of kids who do believe there are monsters in attics, under the bed, or in the closet. But, it still helps give kids the tools to deal with their fears.
And, the monster is kind of adorable in the end:

monster

And, again, Mercer Mayer’s illustrations are wonderful. I loved them as a kid. They’re emotional, fun, and just super creative. As an adult, I did my undergrad in fine arts and I have an interest in illustration, so I really admire his work just from a technical aspect. The colors are moody, I like the texture of the line quality, and his monster drawings are just so darn creative! I would be lying if I said I didn’t draw pretty heavily from this in my own artwork at times. And, the pictures are seriously beautiful. He doesn’t mess around with making lovely, moody images. Just look at this eerie-but-awesome farmhouse! (I like the detail of one light being on, since the little girl can’t sleep.)

mayer

The book also has the added benefit of the little girl eventually letting her parents sleep and dealing with her monster problem on her own –a moral I can assume many parents appreciate.

There are more stories in this series, with kids vs. closet monster and alligator, but, partially because of nostalgia and partially for the artwork, I always thought that this one was the best.

Ages: pre-K and up

(I won’t say reading level, since parents can read the books to kids, as well. =D )

You can purchase copies here: http://www.powells.com/biblio/61-9780140548136-0


Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Patrick Benson

owl-babies1-e1280838356302

This pick is also one heavily affected by bias. Owls have been one of my favorite animals ever since I was a little girl. However, out of all the owl books out there, this one is pretty special. It’s just stinking beautiful!

owls

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The story deals with a pretty typical childhood problem, that of being away from mom and going into a panic. This is something I think everyone can relate to. I mean, we all did it.
The book doesn’t downplay this fear, which I like. Telling kids it’ll be fine and they have nothing to worry about rarely seems to help when they are convinced that, no, things aren’t fine and they probably should be very, very worried. So, instead, the story shows kids how the mother owl really is coming back and they have nothing to fear.
It’s kind of poetic, really.
And, of course, again, it’s gorgeous. The birds are drawn realistically and unsentimental,and the nighttime forest imagery is really quite beautiful and evocative.

Age level: pre-K and up

You can purchase a copy here: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780763617103-0

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

the_snowy_day
I think that basically anything by Ezra Jack Keats is wonderful. His illustrations are gorgeous, and he tells simple stories about… life. They’re just about life. There’s not really a central plot to The Snowy Day. It’s about a little boy who experiences a snowy day. That’s pretty much it. There is a bit about trying to save a snowball for later, but that’s not so much as driving force to the story as just something the character does because, well, he’s a kid.
The illustrations are great! They’re simple but dynamic, full of action and with pleasant colors and imagery. Also, points for not putting the snowy day in some idyllic farmland where there’s always a grandmother dressed in 1800s clothes cooling pies in her window. This is unsentimental and still adorable, looking at a very realistic kid’s experience of a realistic snowy day. He doesn’t encounter some magic, nostalgic experience. He does things like hit tree branches with sticks. Why? Because he’s a kid.
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I think a lot of kids like Peter from the story because, frankly, we all kind of were Peter. How many of us just hit trees with sticks because cause and effect was still pretty awesome? Probably most of us.
peter

Basically, there’s a reason why this book is considered a classic and why so many kids love it. It’s gorgeous, it’s cute, and it’s not cheesy. It’s about snow days, and all of us, even adults, love snow days.

Age level: pre-K and up, and available in board book format

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/7-9780140501827-7

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen
i-want-my-hat-back

How can you not fall in love with this right from the cover? This is adorable. I have a huge case of illustration envy right now. There’s just something hilarious about his very serious-looking bear staring at you in a kind of soulful way and paired with such an odd request. This bear wants his hat back. Doesn’t reading that sentence just make you smile?
I love the illustration style. It’s simple, sort of folk-art style, with some great animal images paired with this weirdly serious, polite text about finding hats. It’s hilarious and awesome!

hat

I really like how the backgrounds are just basically blank. The illustrations give you just enough information and then you leave the rest to the imagination. It keeps the page clear and uncluttered, harmonious even. They’re just really nicely set up pages. I would put prints of the illustrations on my wall, absolutely.
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I feel like these animals exist in the same world as the Fantastic Mr. Fox movie, where the story is still an animal adventure for kids but the animals interact like kind of weird grownups. I can imagine Bill Murray doing the bear’s voice, just kind of dully exasperated by the fact that he’s lost a red, pointy hat and no one seems as concerned as he is about this fact.

I might be gushing, but it’s a great book. I think I’ll buy myself a copy…

Age level: pre-K and up, even to adulthood

Available for purchase: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780763655983-1

Elephant and Piggie by Mo Willems

Initially, I thought these books would be really dumb, like the delightful adventures of two animals learning all the thrills of learning up and down or how to say “cat” and “stop”. I… really hate those kinds of books. We live in a Dr. Seuss world where we know we can teach these things in a fun format. So, I assumed that Elephant and Piggie wouldn’t be very good.
I was wrong.
Completely wrong.
You see, Elephant and Piggie are absolutely hilarious. They are best friends, but also huge mischief makers who constantly get into weird adventures. Just look at these faces. They’re up to no good.

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But, it’s really the way they get into mischief that’s so funny. The books are just outrageously smart, like the baby’s-first-meta-fiction-experience of Elephant and Piggie realizing they are inside a book. Which apparently leads to this moment of baby’s-first-existential-crisis:

piggie

Of course, everything turns out in the end.
But, the stories are just really very funny and often absurd. Sometimes Elephant and Piggie just want to fight, for no reason, and then jump around and shout, for no reason. Kind of like kids. And they take their exploits rather seriously.

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There’s even a book where Piggie decides to be a frog. That’s the story.

The illustrations are simple and full of energy and emotion. The facial expressions are hilarious. And, the stories are legitimately funny, which is unusual considering that they are written for very early readers.

Age level: pre-K, and available in board book format

Available to purchase: http://www.powells.com/s?kw=elephant+and+piggie&class=

I would like to point out that many of these books are from Candlewick Press, which is an all-around awesome company and I would highly suggest checking them out if you want to find sweet, creative books for kids! (I’m not even getting paid to say that.)

Disclaimer: I do not work for Powell’s Books, and am not being paid to send people to their store for purchasing. However, I do support independent book sellers, and Powell’s is just a really cool company, one that I think is worthy of support, and they will consolidate your shipping orders (which helps save a lot of the hidden expenses of buying from companies like Amazon).

So, you read The Hunger Games…

hunger games
Suzanne Collins’ series about children killing each other has been surprisingly mainstream and popular. This is even more remarkable when you realize her much less controversial series, Gregor the Overlander, did not achieve this kind of following.

Less kids killing kids. More kids killing giant rats.

Less kids killing kids. More kids killing giant rats.


Not only does The Hunger Games have a movie franchise, but major directors want to work on it, an Oscar-winning actress leads the cast, and hip bands seem to willingly offer their music (as opposed to begrudgingly offering it, as in the case of the Twilight movies).
So, how did an American knockoff of Battle Royale become so successful? Why is dystopia the go-to genre of choice for, of all things, escapist literature? What does this say about our culture?

Honestly, that’s really up for its own discussion.

What we can do, however, is bring you the best of Pushy Librarians and coerce you into the world of highbrow literature! And thank goodness this is a dystopian series and not, say, another paranormal romance, because there’s a whole lot of literati-goodness to choose from!

battle royale
1. Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
While it’s not a great classic, we would be sorely remiss to leave off the book that Collins owes the greatest debt. If you read The Hunger Games, then you already know what Battle Royale is basically about. There’s a futuristic world where a corrupt government (this time focusing on a pan-Asian dictatorship) keeps control of the populace by forcing groups of children to battle to the death on live television. Like The Hunger Games, it is both a straight dystopia about the evils of tyranny and government coercion, and also a satire of voyeuristic TV culture. But after the basic plot, that’s where the similarities end. In the world of Battle Royale, there is no segregated society of haves and have-nots. Instead, the class conflicts are much more like those of today. Also, no one is really immune to the battles. There are no tributes selected from labor camps. Instead, groups of middle school children are simply drugged and taken to the fight zone. There, they fight on a marked location where their territory gets smaller and smaller due to rigged explosives, until even hidden children must be forced to encounter one another. What makes Battle Royale so intense is that all of the children are from the same school, and so you see the harrowing decisions they make concerning whether or not they have to kill their friends and peers. Unlike The Hunger Games, the book is told from a variety of perspectives, so that even seemingly evil characters get full back stories and development. This makes for an intense, harrowing, and profoundly disturbing read, and one that most fans will thoroughly appreciate.

lord of the flies
2. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
If The Hunger Games discusses the violence present in the state (“Now we see the violence that’s inherent in the system!”), Lord of the Flies looks at the violence present from human nature left to its own devices. Like The Hunger Games, it’s a story of violence and brutality, and features children in the acting roles. But, unlike The Hunger Games, the children are the instigators and arbiters, as well as the victims. The story is about a group of schoolboys who end up on a deserted island, forced to govern themselves. While readers may or may not agree with the message that humans naturally gravitate toward brutality, the story does raise many important points about the nature of violence and human’s proclivity toward cruelty. And, in case you were wondering, this is another Nobel-prize-literary novel, so no docked points on the literati-o-meter!

WE
3. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
This sci-fi dystopian novel is dated, often silly, and regularly dips into less-than-sensitive race relations. So, why read it? Well, aside from inspiring one of the greatest dystopian novels of all time (next number down, folks), it also has the distinction of being the most hated book of the Soviet Union. That’s ballsy stuff. What’s the story? Well, in the future everyone’s life and work is based on mathematical forms and utility. You are a series of mathematical functions, and your job is to work properly in a larger system that is far, far more important than you. Personal liberty, love, individuality, these are weaknesses and must be stamped out by the law. In many ways, the novel functions as a satire of the USSR’s interest in Taylorism (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/taylorism), communist statism, and the constructivists’ idea that mathematical harmony leads to betterment.
For the record, this is constructivist art:

Spatial Construction no. 12 by Aleksandr Rodchenko

"The investigation of material volume and construction made it possible for us in 1918, in an artistic form, to begin to combine materials like iron and glass, the materials of modern Classicism, comparable in their severity with the marble of antiquity. In this way, an opportunity emerges of uniting purely artistic forms with utilitarian intentions.... The results of this are models which stimulate us to inventions in our work of creating a new world, and which call upon the producers to exercise controls over the forms encountered in our everyday life." 
-Vladimir Tatlin

Spatial Construction no. 12 by Aleksandr Rodchenko
“The investigation of material volume and construction made it possible for us in 1918, in an artistic form, to begin to combine materials like iron and glass, the materials of modern Classicism, comparable in their severity with the marble of antiquity. In this way, an opportunity emerges of uniting purely artistic forms with utilitarian intentions…. The results of this are models which stimulate us to inventions in our work of creating a new world, and which call upon the producers to exercise controls over the forms encountered in our everyday life.”
-Vladimir Tatlin

So, you can see, you’re already getting brainy just by learning these terms! But, on top of your adorable braininess, We is also a straight dystopian novel. It raises questions about the role of government, individual liberty, human rights, and how a society may be repressed and may accept its repression. And, if you like dystopia, you have to read the book that inspired the man who made dystopia what it is today…

1984
4. 1984 by George Orwell
I wanted to leave this off the list in the same way I left The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia off of the Harry Potter List. I’d like to think everyone’s already read 1984. But, my work as a real-life librarian has informed me that this is not even close to being true. Even though dystopia is a huge fad, so huge that Tyra Banks actually tried her hand at it (with appropriately hilarious results)…

Witness the true horror of... government pageants?

Witness the true horror of… government pageants?


…many people still haven’t read the book that basically made the genre what it is today. Orwell’s work set the stage for what people think of when they think about dystopia. Like Zamyatin, he writes about government control, individual liberty, and how a society may be repressed –along with plenty of references to the USSR. But, Orwell went further with his world-building than Zamyatin. While in We the characters talk and think in mathematical forms, roboticized as they were by Taylotistic models, Orwell focuses on more realistic reasons for how a society may be repressed. Orwell came up with the idea of New Speak, changing words and terms in order to weaken just what concepts the populace may even be able to grasp. He also wrote about random arrests for control, absolute loyalty to the state, invasion of privacy, and children being used as informants. Orwell’s journalistic abilities helped create a world that is both realistic and terrifying, despite its moment of datedness. If you want to be a true dystopian-reader, you have to read this book.

handmaids-tale
5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Let’s talk about feminist literature and… hey, come back!
Yes, we live in a post-feminist society in many, many ways, and in quite a lot of circles the backlash has pretty well blacklisted the idea of feminism in public thought. This is unfortunate, because much of how we relate to one another in society and politics is based on gender norms and relations. If you’re in doubt, check out the stir concerning the recent rape trials and the politics involved. Regardless of your personal beliefs, feminist thoughts have had huge impacts on the discussion of gender in society and any good thinker would be remiss to dismiss them.
(I rhymed…)
In the school of feminist literature, there are certain eminent members, like Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir that all feminists must read. Atwood is pretty secure in her place on the list. From her pursuit of feminine literary norms, to her desire to elevate “chick lit” to an art, she’s definitely a feminist writer. However, just as Orwell and Zamyatin were not just political proselytizers against Stalinism, Atwood is far from the feminist strawman of a yowling man-hater whose politics go before her art. This is apparent in her dystopian classic, A Handmaid’s Tale.
The story is a science fiction tale about a right-wing theocratic military dictatorship that imposes strict roles on the populace, especially women. The main character is a concubine, and the conflict is her struggles for autonomy in a society that does not value her.
While the other dystopians I mentioned have to do with freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of work, this also includes freedom of bodily autonomy, freedom of relationships, and freedom of religion. It is an award-winning science fiction piece that has spurred enough debate and discussion to definitely warrant a literati stamp of approval!

fahrenheit451
6. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury is a veritable god among book-lovers. He produced some of the most engaging, entertaining, and intelligent stories in American history, and we will fight you on that. Not only that, but he was insanely prolific, and managed to address complex, intelligent subjects with great scope and depth in a way that was enjoyable and entertaining to read. So, what I’m saying is, Nobel Prize for Literature people, you totally missed a good one.
The story is set in the future, and concerns a world where books are illegal and firemen are employed to find contraband books and burn them. Many people say that the story is about censorship, and while that is the case Bradbury himself said that the main focus was not on how people take literature away from us but how WE relinquish our literature freely. The characters give up their freedom for the sake of technological convenience and nonstop entertainment programming. They don’t even realize that there is a war going on!
Sound uncomfortably familiar?
Bradbury’s story hits eerily home with his insights about giving up our heritage of literature and great thought for a sense of security and entertainment, even if we’re not secure and are dying inside!
The plot focuses on a fireman who one day does the unthinkable and reads one of the books he is supposed to burn. His depressing, empty life is changed completely and he realizes that the crazy of the world may be the only sane people left.
Also, any book that encourages readers to abandon simplistic entertainment in favor of intellectual thought, or else face dire consequences, is definitely something we can get behind!

huxley0408
7. A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Fun fact, did you know the band The Doors was named after Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, which is about dropping acid. Just… saying.
Ah, A Brave New World. You know, a lot of people who feel stupid saying that we live in an Orwellian future like to say that we live in this book. Personally, I think the only book that sucks people in and forces them to live the events is The Neverending Story, but I digress.

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!


The story sounds at first like a utopia. The world is peaceful. We have technology. No one is getting burned alive with their collection of Shakespeare… But, that’s just the surface. Huxley’s book shows that peace at all costs may not be such a great idea. The people are artificially created, and live a weak, anti-intellectual, passionless lifestyle. Families and romance are pornographic. Nothing matters. Humans are basically just there to blandly exist, consume, and die. The chillingly clinical look at human existence and the reasons for continuing at all is not only frightening but important in today’s “unexamined life” espousal. If there’s nothing to die for, is there anything to live for?
Or, as Huxley himself said: “Within the next generation I believe that the world’s leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.”

clockwork orange
8. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
If no other book on this list will give you an invite to the “cool readers” crowd, this will. What can you really say about A Clockwork Orange that hasn’t been said? Or, what can even be said that the trailer for the (amazing!!) Kubrick film didn’t say?
Witty, funny, satiric, musical, exciting, bizarre, witty, political, thrilling, frightening, metaphorical, comic, sardonic, exciting, metaphorical, Beethoven, metaphorical, frightening, sardonic, comic, bizarre, musical, witty, frightening, political, satiric, Beethoven, thrilling, funny, exciting, funny, comic, bizarre, satiric, metaphorical, sardonic, thrilling, exciting, political, musical, exciting, witty, Beethoven, frightening, comic.
Basically, Clockwork is one of the most interesting books you’ll ever read. The story is set in the future, where crime and depravity have become extreme and government corruption is the norm. Our “hero” is Alex, a young hoodlum who basically typifies the “kids doing violence” archetype. He’s a murderer, a mugger, a rapist, an abuser, a household terror, a gangster, and he does it purely for the fun of it. He’s Shakespearian in his enjoyment of villainy, and not in a way that seems mustache-twirling or unrealistic. He has fun when he’s being a criminal, and that’s who he is.
Enter the law. Enter a new treatment by the law: The Ludovico Technique, which classically conditions Alex into being an unwilling law-abider and pacifist.
The novel asks you, what do you think of this? Can a person’s human integrity be violated, even someone as evil and rotten as Alex?
For a book filled with so much depravity, to the point that the movie received an X-rating and was blamed for copy-cat crimes, one might think that it’d be too difficult for the average reader. However, Burgess separates the reader from the action through a writing style done in an imaginary slang-speech that Alex uses throughout the book. The experimental style allows the readers to step back and consider the ideas without being repelled by the story. (To be fair, the movie does this, as well, through experimental film techniques.)
It’s frightful, fearsome, and so, so quotable, and you won’t be sorry you read it!

1Q84
9. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Murakami is one of those divisive names in literature. On the one hand, he’s very popular and an excellent writer (Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, anyone?). On the other hand, some people dislike him because they see him as being overrated among Western readers whose only introduction to Japanese literature is through his books. While I understand the need to branch out and read other Japanese writers, this doesn’t mean that Murakami is a bad author in his own right. In fact, he’s a damn good writer, and don’t you forget it! (Again, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, anyone?)

Read the damn thing already!

Read the damn thing already!


So, what is this nearly-thousand-page monstrocity about? Well, it’s 1984! But, it’s a bizarro 1984. It’s 1984, but with magical creatures, a martial arts technique made entirely out of testicle-punching, a massive publishing scam, and an alternative universe created by doing something so out of the Japanese norm that the fabric of space and time is actually ripped.
The story is about an assassin and championing ball-smasher (this is seriously a plot point –highbrow literature is weird), who climbs over a railing and creates the alternative 1984 (the Q is for question). It is also about a cult, an editor who is trying to pull off a literature scam, and his dyslexic prodigy who may not be writing fiction after all. In with all this weirdness is still the familiar Orwellian story about government, control, and the importance of language. Plus, you get to say you read a Murakami book.

infinite jest
10. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
So, you really, really want to prove you’re not a literary newb, love for YA book series aside? Why not Wallace?
And, yes, let’s address the pink elephant in the room: this is a notoriously difficult novel. People make flow charts about this book. Yes. There are flow charts to help you understand what’s going on.
But, who am I kidding? You’re no pansy! You are dying to prove your literary chops, and, let me tell you, difficulty aside, this is not a book you’re going to regret reading. Satirical, poignant, funny, memorable, harrowing, and full of tennis, it’s one of the most entertaining books you’ll ever encounter.
So, what’s the plot of this notorious, difficult, smart, funny, awesome book of pure awesome? Well… Um… Okay, will a teaser do? It’s about a video that’s so entertaining that anyone who sees it will watch it on loop until they die. In a futuristic world of drug addicts, extreme tennis, support groups for the ugly, and wheel chair terrorists, the students of a prestigious tennis academy, the inmates of a drug rehab halfway house, and a variety of other characters eventually pursue the afore-mentioned Infinite Jest.
The book is hardly linear, and written in a series of snippets that reveal a lot of daily life for the characters in the story (complete with copious footnotes, so watch out!). This may feel daunting, but it’s actually very rewarding in that you get to experience a lot of Wallace’s insights. And, as one of the greatest intellectuals, if not the greatest intellectual of our time, Wallace’s insights are not to be missed.
Empathetic, gorgeously written, and dense enough for you to feel really good about yourself at the end, this is most assuredly a book you don’t want to skip!

So, you read Twilight…

So, you’ve read Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games. But, you’re entering your mid-twenties and you’d like to read something more… adult. Am I correct in making that assumption? And, provided you have taste, you won’t be heading down the road of ghost-written generilit. But, you’ve tried this or that book, hither and yon, near and far, and you haven’t found books that have really given you that oompha you had when reading the children’s book. You like some of the tropes, perhaps –love triangles, chosen-ones, the hero’s journey, spunky main characters (well, for the HP and HG fans, anyway), magic, monsters, dystopian worlds, political satire, angst, gothic trappings…
Never fear! Pushy Librarians ™ to the rescue! Pushy Librarians are here to encourage you (aggressively) to read new and exciting books. And, since Pushy Librarians are grotesquely well-read, we can suggest books that are JUST right for YOU.

So… you like Twilight. Judgements about your taste in romances aside, we actually would like to make a brave stance and say: We understand. Sure we do. Life can be boring. Why not a world where danger can happen but, no, not really? Nothing dreadful really happens. Romance is forever. Romance is exciting. Everyone wants you. You’re hot and all the boys in town, follow you all around… After we’re done singing The Carpenters, we must say, you’re in luck! A lot of great books actually have all the angst, love triangles, forbidden desires, monsters, gothic romance, and vampiric lore you love to escape into!

wuthering heights
1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Wuthering Heights is quintessentially angsty and moody. It has that setting, the dreary moors, the crumbly, old estates, a place where the wind howls and fog clings to the ground… Well, you get the idea. It also has one of the most epic tales of doomed love and revenge in the entire canon of literature. And, of course, it makes it even juicier to know that it was originally condemned for immorality in its time. The characters are Heathcliff, a gypsy orphan, adopted into a rich family, but forever mistreated by the children and heirs. He is in love with his adopted sister, Cathy, a wild-child, beautiful, adored, and unfaithful. Together they… ruin everyone’s lives. And how that ruin unfolds, falling apart so beautifully into corruption, violence and tragedy. Oh, and possible ghosts.

romeo and juliet
2. Romeo and Juliet by our man, the Bard! (Fanfare)
The ultimate in teen-angst. It’s about forbidden desires, and the wonderfulness of desire, and desiring desire, and desiring forbidden desire, and falling in love, and falling in love with love. Sure, they’re flighty, brash, and immature, but aren’t all teenagers? And the fact that they can’t be together just makes their brash, young love all the more passionate. It really is tragic, too, if you let go of some of your contemporary condemnation for their relationship and just go with the heady emotions of youth. And the dialog! Juliet is one of the wittiest characters in Shakespeare, and has some of the best lines you’ll ever read. No stammering Bella Swan here!

pride-and-prejudice-book
3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Supposedly, Twilight (the first book) is sort of, kind of a re-telling of this story. It has the two main characters who meet and, oh, no, there’s misunderstanding, they don’t like each other, she doesn’t know why he’s so rude and standoffish… There’s some great tension in the scenes of will-they-won’t-they (oh, who are we kidding? They will!), but it’s more than just a romance. It’s also a drama of social norms and laws, a woman’s place in the world, and the dangers of misplaced trusts and misplaced doubts. But, don’t worry, there’s a love story in the end!

Trilby
4. Trilby by George du Maurier
It’s the bohemian revolution in Paris! (Cue your Moulin Rouge…) The artists and poets are all doing their arty, poety thing, and in the midst is Trilby. She’s a cute, quirky heroine, like every character Zooey Deschanel ever played. She’s a foot-model (okay… that’s kinda weird), and she can’t sing worth anything. Like, at all. Aw, see, it’s like Bella’s clumsiness, except that Trilby’s a LIKABLE heroine! And, yes, I’m not exaggerating her adorableness. There was a huge fandom for Trilby back in the day. She falls in love with a rich boy who… leaves her. Models aren’t so chic in those days. When he comes back, she has the voice of an angel and performs for adoring crowds. How? Well, she’s under the thrall of the mysterious musician, Svengali, who may have her in some kind of a spell. While the straight interpretation is… very anti-semetic, in light of He Who Comes Later you can really see Svengali as a Byronic Hero, an Other, outside society, whose genius could have blossomed if only people weren’t so prejudiced and…

Phantom_of_the_Opera_Cover
5. Yeah. Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
So, it’s based on Trilby, but you knew this was coming. Or, at least, I hope you did. This book is pure Gothalicious, angsty whipped topping in a crystal bowl. The author was a Gothic fanboy who loved reading Poe and who also wrote pulp fiction serials. He wanted to elevate pulp fiction to a literary status, because he loved the melodrama of it. He liked how this trait is in old, Gothic Romantic stories, like Poe, or The Monk, or The Castle of Ontronto… He also liked lifting ideas and putting them in his story, filling the story with winking nods to Gothic literature’s melodrama and overly-stylized dialog… I think he and Tarantino would have been friends… And, Phantom was his assemblage-piece of fanfictiony homages to Poe and other Gothic writers. As a pulp fiction serial. And it is wonderful. By wonderful, of course, I mean campy, excessively angsty, almost cute with knowing references to other media (Red Death is only the beginning), full of really beautifully terrible dialog, and characters that the world has decided we need to see over, and over, and over again. It’s not just the Beauty and the Beast aspects, or the love triangle, it’s really the Phantom. Imagine of Edward looked like Skeletor, was super smart, a great artist and musician, could sing, had a sense of humor, slept in a real coffin (yeah…), had glowing eyes, strangled people, and was basically nothing like Edward. But, he’s a badass. How bad? Once, he was played by Freddy Kruger. Bad. Ass.
Oh, and Freud and Jung. All over this.

cyrano
6. Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmund Rostand
Or, maybe you want your love triangles with more tragic love among good people and less crazy, Freudian violence? Cyrano is about a dashing soldier/poet with a long nose that he thinks means no woman would love him. Roxanne is a beautiful, and actually quite nice, woman who loves poetry. Christian is a handsome but slow-witted man. Cyrano sets Christian up with Roxanne, using Cyrano’s poetry. Love, war, tragedy, and poetry commence. And it is beautiful!

Carmilla
7. Carmilla by le Fanu
So, we’ve been neglecting an important aspect, you might notice. Vampires. Well, fear not! Carmilla is a very strange, little book. It’s written before Dracula, and le Fanu does a surprisingly good job and writing from the point of view of a woman. It’s set in a castle (do you even have to ask?), where live a lovely girl and her father. But, when a carriage containing a mysterious woman and her daughter crashes, the daughter ends up staying at the castle for… reasons. And this is Carmilla, beautiful, alluring, languid, pale, sexy, and totally undead. Delicious undead goodness ensues.

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8. Dracula by Bram Stoker
So, you knew this one was coming. What can we even say that hasn’t already been said about the most popular horror character of all time? He’s dastardly, but strangely tragic. He’s horrifying, but alluring. He can turn into a bat, a wolf, and fog, can’t see his reflection, is repulsed by garlic, sleeps in a coffin, and dies when getting staked in the heart: he’s a real vampire! Aside from being a complete badass (he kills an entire ship, and it is absolutely, mind-numbingly terrifying!), he’s also sneaky, slippery, and can get you when you’re asleep! Even if you pull your covers all the way over your head and your toes don’t even stick out the other side, and you have your favorite bear and… I need to get more garlic.

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9. The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice
The original in sympathetic vampires, this is sort of a polarizing series. Either you think it’s awesome for being a literary series about vampires, or you think it’s pretentious melodrama. But, either way, it’s worth giving a go for the sheer cultural punch it offers. Every vampire story around today owes something to Rice and her creations. Hell, without Rice, there’d probably be no Buffy. And, without Buffy, Joss Whedon may not be the cultural icon he is today. Wrap your minds around that one, fanboys and fangirls! But, aside from this, Rice doesn’t just give us angsty, sympathetic monsters. She gives us monsters with culture, with monster dreams, with monster goals, with traditions and expectations, and an entire universe, who ponder philosophical quandaries about their existence and who… make rock bands. Okay, it may not be for everyone, but if you like vampire stories, it’s worth giving a go.

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10. Collages by Anais Nin
Anais Nin: exotic, romantic, frank, whimsical, philosophical, beautiful, hypnotic… There’s a lot to say about this woman, and a lot many people have said about her. This is one of her easier books to digest, and still will probably impress all your bookish friends who teased you for liking Twilight. It really is a collage, of memories and moments, intertwined in pure poetry. It’s like a long, feverish dream that you do not want to end. At times heartbreaking, at times sweeping with desire, at times repugnant, it’s always a pleasure of forbidden fruits, passion, tragedy, delight, and sense of self. Never pretentious and always entertaining, Collages is the perfect read for someone wanting that tingly feeling of reading a book saturated in the colors of passion.

The Angst of Being a Good Reader

There is a moment as a reader when you stop reading, sit back, and realize that not only are you not Tolstoy, Garcia-Marquez, Dostoevsky, the Brontes, Melville, Faulkner, O’Connor, Shakespeare, Homer, Murakami, Fitzgerald and all the gang, but you that you never will be. And this is depressing because they seem like such a cool gang, and you really want to join. But, like the kid bringing a garbage can lid to the snowboarding slopes, you’re hopelessly out of your league, and skulk on home to watch cartoons and eat packages of orange cream push-ups and watermelon bubble gum, wondering what it might be that causes the difference between you and the Flying Tomato.

-C.