Evanston and Authenticity, an Update

Posted in Favorite Books, Geography at 3:25 pm by Janet

Now that we’ve had a book discussion at the library about Will Grayson, Will Grayson, I can report on the reactions of some actual teen readers. First of all, this group of girls really liked the book. They definitely preferred Will Grayson to grumpy will grayson. They thought Jane was awesome. They liked Tiny but found him a little over the top. Some of them even said the book made them want to join their school’s Gay-Straight alliance.

Since the issue of geographical/Evanston/Chicagoland authenticity was stuck in my craw, I brought it up to the group. The kids told me that it was important to them that geographical details ring true–they make the book seem authentic and grounded. They said the Chicago stuff seemed real, for the most part. Some of them wanted to figure out if Frenchy’s really does exist and where exactly it is (!). Then I asked them about Evanston’s high school. They were all pretty much convinced that the events in the book could not have taken place at ETHS because it’s full of gangsters and thugs. Now, it should be stated that ETHS and their high school are rivals, and that as a result certain stereotypes about ETHS may exist in their minds. I have to take their comments with a grain of salt. I’m still waiting to hear from someone who actually did go to ETHS to get a second opinion on that one. Bottom line, geographical authenticity does matter to teen readers (at least on Chicago’s North Shore). Writers, keep doing your homework.

A last word: although ETHS’s mascot really is Willy the Wildkit, there are no murals at ETHS, the girls in my group reported. So here’s my virtual mural:




Evanston and Authenticity

Posted in Favorite Books, Geography at 7:24 am by Janet

Even though I no longer have a crush on John Green, I read Will Grayson, Will Grayson as soon as I could get my hands on it. I loved it. I was particularly excited that the book is set in the Chicago area and that the Will Grayson parts of the story are set in my town, Evanston.

In library school and on various listservs, we spend a lot of time talking about the importance of authenticity in multicultural literature for children.  What I hear over and over is  that it is important to be sure you’re depicting a people from a particular culture or place fairly and accurately. But now I wonder…do you have to represent a town accurately? Does geographical authenticity matter?

Does Evanston’s high school really have lots of murals of its mascot? Does Jane’s house at 1712 Wesley exist and does it really have a porch? Am I being too obsessive? I mean, I live here and I don’t know. Then again, I’m not really the audience the author had in mind, given that I’m, you know, not a teenager. (I do know, however, that Will and Tiny and Jane drove home from the Hideout way quicker than is actually possible, at least when I’m driving. )

I’m still undecided (maybe you people out there can help me decide), but here’s how I’m leaning on this question. In this case, geographical authenticity matters when it shapes the story. It matters that Will Grayson and Tiny live in Evanston because it’s far away from will grayson, who I think is supposed to live over in the southwest suburb of Naperville. It also matters matters because Tiny and Will Grayson are Evanston rich kids, and will grayson is not a rich kid (although I’ve heard there are plenty of rich kids in Naperville). These are things that might pull the characters apart, but various events and strong feelings conspire to bring them together. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter because a story can be, well, just a story. The murals on the wall at ETHS don’t push the story forward, nor do they hold it back. Sometimes fiction is fiction, in that it’s made up,  but it sure is neat when the details correspond with reality.

I’m hoping to give WGWG to a recent ETHS grad, and we’re also going to do a book discussion at my library (one suburb north) on it later this summer. Perhaps some of those teens can tell me if it is authentic, and whether or not it matters to them. I’ll get back to you on that.


La Nouvelle Orleans

Posted in Favorite Books, Geography at 8:41 pm by Janet

Ooh, look what the cat dragged into the Tarts Wardrobe! It’s me, and tarts, I have not forgotten about you. I have just been very busy. Among other things, I’ve been on the road. Last month Lucianonymous and I drove down to New Orleans. New Orleans is like no other place I’ve been. Is it France? Is it the Caribbean? Is it the USA? All of the above? We mostly stayed around the French Quarter, but we did take  a detour when we got lost coming back from Tulane. Business was booming in the French Quarter, but you could definitely still see the effects of Katrina–bad roads, boarded up houses.  I narrowly avoided having a voodoo hex put on me when I skipped out of a mini lecture at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple to rescue L from standing interminably on the sidewalk.  We wandered around a cemetery (the one in Easy Rider). We took a drive through the Garden District. The whole place was fascinating to me.

What am I getting at? After I got back I had to reread Ruined by Paula Morris. I read this book this winter, and it had me glued to the couch. The same thing happened the second time around, except that this time I had actually seen some of the places mentioned in the book and the story seemed so much more vivid. Anyhow, it’s about a New York teen named Rebecca who’s suddenly shipped off to New Orleans to live with an old family friend. An outsider in her very stodgy and traditional private school, Rebecca has to look elsewhere to find friends.  She meets Lisette in the cemetery across the street from her house. Turns out Lisette is a ghost. Lisette introduces Rebecca to New Orleans’s history, with its complicated race relations and class structure. Rebecca soon finds out that New Orleans’s history is, well, not history at all. Lisette is connected to an old voodoo curse on the family of Rebecca’s  snootiest schoolmate, and Rebecca herself may have a part to play in the curse. There’s a cute boy and a dramatic ending and lots of Mardi Gras beads. Morris does a does a great job of creating a sense of place and giving an overview of the history and culture of New Orleans. Plus it’s a riveting story.

So…if I can’t make it back for Mardi Gras, I’ll just read Ruined. You should read it, too.

Tomb of voodoo queen Marie Laveau

Tomb of voodoo queen Marie Laveau

Commander's Palace, mentioned in the book

Commander's Palace, mentioned in the book


Geography Club

Posted in Geography at 9:20 pm by Janet

First and foremost, I’m happy that Bridget posted. It’s great to see her back here.

Second, I’m stuck on this geography thing. I’m trying to think of kids books about various places that I’ve lived. I hope Bridget can weigh in about Portland sometime. Ramona! I’m still pondering Chicago, Milwaukee, and some other places. Any ideas, anybody out there? 

I recently read a middle-grade book set in Minneapolis, Julia Gillian (And the Art of Knowing) by Alison McGhee. Speaking of Portland, I’ve seen Julia Gillian compared to Ramona–she’s a pretty normal kid from a pretty normal family, not always happy, having random every-day adventures. These adventures take place during a slow summer spent worrying and walking her St. Bernard around my old neighborhood of South Minneapolis. She goes to Bryant Hardware to use the claw machine, Our Kitchen for breakfast, and Quang for Vietnamese food. The neighborhood is a really important part of the story. Julia Gillian learns to confront her fears with the help of her neighbors, the people she meets on her walks, and the simple freedom she has to wander. Julia Gillian is a sweet story. I think it really captures the flavor (even if it is Minnesota Mild, which I happen to appreciate) of being a kid in a fun-walking-area of Minneapolis. 

Check out this blog to see photos of the neighborhood in question.


Unique New York

Posted in Geography at 12:03 pm by Janet

I just started reading Gods of Manhattan by Scott Mebus. That got me thinking about my favorite kids books set in New York City. A number of my favorite books as a child were set in NYC, even though I had never been there. I found a lot of the details related to the setting to be mysterious. What’s the difference between Brooklyn and the Bronx? What is a tenement? And what on earth is an air shaft? To a girl in the Midwest, the stories seemed exotic and therefore appealing and important. 

Eventually, as a young adult, I visited NY and learned the geography. I even figured out what an air shaft was, most likely to my detriment. The incident where I rented a sketchy apartment in Minneapolis JUST BECAUSE it had an air shaft was probably unnecessary, but it does speak to the fascination the Big City held and still holds for me. 

Here is a list of my ten favorite books about New York City that are read by children.

1. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn–Betty Smith. Air shafts! A handsome, shiftless father! A pervert in the hallway! This is as good as it gets! If you still don’t know what an air shaft is, go read this book! Now!

2. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler–E.L. Konigsburg. The Metropolitan Museum tells you that  you can’t actually stay there overnight:   http://www.metmuseum.org/explore/FAQ/htm/franken.htm

3. Knuffle Bunny–Mo Willems. I think Mo Willems has left Brooklyn, but you can still enjoy his neighborhood.

4. The Cricket in Times Square–George Selden. Great animal story in a very busy place.

5. All-of-a-Kind Family–Sydney Taylor. I loved this whole series about a Jewish family on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s, even though I didn’t know Uptown from Downtown from Coney Island. A little lighter than A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  

6. Harriet the Spy–Louise Fitzhugh. If only I could find a place with a dumbwaiter. That would be way cooler than an air shaft.

7. Catcher in the Rye–J.D. Salinger. I am convinced that every book about teens running around NY owes something to this book.

8. So Yesterday–Scott Westerfeld. Teens running around NY, not being angsty but hip and inquisitive. The bit about the Cool Hunting is very appropriate to the setting and its fashion-conscious inhabitants. 

9. Chains–Laurie Halse Anderson. Shows interesting aspects of NY’s history that I for one didn’t know much about. A slave girl is stuck in lower Manhattan during the American Revolution. Can she escape?  

10. The Lightning Thief–Rick Riordan. Yeah, yeah, the whole book isn’t set in NY, but some of the most important action takes place there. Who knew that Mount Olympus has moved to the 600th floor of the Empire State Building?

What are your favorite books about New York City? What about your own city?