Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Summer Read and Learn 2017 - Build a Better World

Build a Better World - Children's Gameboard image
Are you ready for Summer Read and Learn 2017? We are ready to build a better world (our theme this year) and hope you are too! It's a summer challenge of fun. We're celebrating books and learning.

Kids and teens, you can sign up online or at your local branch anytime between June 10 and September 10. You'll have until September 10 to finish the program and pick up earned prizes.

The program offers kids exciting read and learn activities. They can earn online badges and prizes (while supplies last) or raffle entries as they complete each track. Complete all the tracks in their age group and they complete the program. They can keep track of their progress online and earn up to seven online badges!

Teens, you have an great opportunity to tell us what books you've enjoyed reading and why! You can earn an online badge for every book review you write. Write three book reviews and you complete the program! Come to your local branch to pick up your prize, while supplies last.

A Book That Shaped Me logo - Library of Congress - Letters about Literature
Music, science, storytellers, animals that walk the earth, and those that swim! These are a few of the stellar kids' programs we have this summer. Rising 5th and 6th graders can also take part in a summer writing contest called A Book That Shaped Me. Participants write a one-page letter to his or her local librarian about a book (fiction or nonfiction) that has had a personal impact on his or her life. The contest is sponsored by the Library of Congress National Book Festival. Entry submission form and letter must be turned into any MCPL branch by Wednesday, June 28. Top winners will be honored at the Library of Congress National Book Festival on September 2 and earn prizes.

There are many engaging teen programs as well! Be sure to come to our Teens Talk Books events on July 20 and August 17 at the Rockville Memorial branch. Teens will gather for engaging book discussions. Snacks will be provided. See the Teens Talk Books box on the right of the Teensite page for more information.

2017 Reading Challenge image
Adults, teens, and children can join our popular 2017 Reading Challenge! Or, as I like, to call it, Read Like a Librarian! We read a lot, as you can imagine. Sign up online and join the program. Read a book from each of the twelve different categories listed.  Complete the program online and be entered into a raffle to earn prizes!

Kids and teens with fines on their library cards should make sure to take part in our Great Fines Read Off that goes on all year long! It is very popular. Kids and teens ages 17 years or younger can earn a “Library Buck” for every half-hour they read in the library. If you read to another young person in the library, you can both receive credit for your time! You can register at any branch and may read any type of material such as books, graphic novels, magazines, e-books, e-magazines, and websites.

What Do I Check Out Next? Image of people at cafe reading
Not sure what to read this summer? We've got thrilling and diverse booklists of reading suggestions for kids and teens by grade that will be mirrors and windows into many cultures for your children! Looking for more suggestions? Try our Kids and Teens pages. Adults can find book suggestions on our Readers' Cafe pages. Need more help finding books? Just fill out our What Do I Check Out Next? online form and we'll email suggestions just for you. Of course, you can always ask any of our friendly librarians in person at your local branch. We're always happy to help you find the right books for you or your children!

Ready to build a better world? Sign up starting June 10 for an amazing summer of reading and learning fun! Summer Read and Learn 2017 - It's for everyone!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Taciturn Tales - The Art of the Short Story

Did you know that an average novel has 80,000 words in it? That's a lot of words. Don't get me wrong, I'm a librarian, I like to read, but sometimes I need a break. That's when I turn to short stories. Short stories have traditionally been defined as stories that can be read in one sitting. Nowadays the definition of a short story is a bit more formal. Short stories are usually no shorter than 1,000 words and no longer than 20,000. If you're really in a hurry, there's a subgenre of short stories called, I kid you not, short short stories. Such micro stories are also sometimes referred to as flash fiction.

Of course short stories are more than just stories that are...short. They have their own style, rhythm, and pace. Sometimes, for instance, short stories will start in the middle of the action, rather than building up to it with an explanation of the setting, characters, etc. The conclusions of short stories can be more abrupt than what one finds in a novel.

Book cover for Tales of Terror by Edgar Allan PoeEarly predecessors of modern short stories include works as diverse as One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights) and traditional fairy tales such as those collected and published by Charles Perrault. The modern short story really came into its own during the 19th century. Washington Irving and Edgar Allen Poe, as well as the Brothers Grimm, wrote or compiled short stories during the first half of the 1800s. The second half of the 19th century saw short story collections from authors such as Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, and many more.

The short story form has flourished since then. There are so many well regarded contemporary short story authors, I won't even attempt to name them. I'll let the experts guide you.  A good starting place is The Best American Short Stories series, an annual publication that collects the best short stories in American literature from well known and emerging authors. The latest edition, 2016 is edited by Pulitzer Prize winning Dominican American author Junot Diaz. There's also the O'Henry Prize Stories. This annual publication compiles the best 20 short stories selected from thousands published in literary magazines.

Book cover for The Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea
Short stories can be found in other ways too. For example, there are collections of stories by individual authors. Dear Life, The Water Museum, and Sea Lovers are examples of such collections, by Alice Munro, Luis Alberto Urrea, and Valerie Martin respectively.  You can find such collections by searching the name of an author and adding the phrase short stories. I tried this with Stephen King, for instance, and found both his latest collection, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams and his earlier short story works.

There are also themed short story collections. I did a search of science fiction and short stories, for instance, and found a large number of print and ebook collections, including Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation and Women Destroy Science Fiction!, a collection of short stories from Lightspeed magazine, all written by women. You can use this technique to find other themed short story collections, such as mystery or horror collections. We also have short story collections in other languages, such as SpanishChinese, and Vietnamese.

Of course short stories aren't just for adults. MCPL offers short story collections for children and for teens. Kids may enjoy reading fairy tales from the villains' perspective in Troll's Eye View: a Book of Villainous Tales. Remember those short short stories? Busy teens might find time for a tale or two in Sudden Flash Youth: 65 Short Short Stories.

I suppose it would be wrong for a post about short stories to be too long, so I'll wrap up here. If you've been inspired to find a short tale or two, we can help you find some you'll love. Talk to one of our friendly folks at the information desk of any MCPL branch or try our What Do I Check Out Next? service, which provides online, personalized reading suggestions.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Deadlines, Writing, and Other Terrors

Blank piece of paperWriting's a funny thing. Terrifying actually, if you think too much about it. Before you start, the page is empty. There's nothing there and you, the writer, have to create content from scratch. You have to fill that blank space. And it's not enough to fill it with letters and words. Those letters and words must form ideas that link together, make sense, and, most terrifying of all, are worth reading. Perhaps that's so many writers struggle with procrastination.

I find creative writing quite difficult for this very reason. The writer has to come up with the story, or poem, or song on his or her own. You can't just describe something that happened, you have to create what happens and then write about it in an understandable, engaging way. At least I'm not alone in feeling this way. Even established writers such as Tracy Chevalier, express trepidation at confronting the blank page. Chevalier, for instance, notes that, "It takes me hours of circling each day to finally 'land' on the writing. Hours of cups of tea and checking for e-mail, checking Twitter, Facebook, the news."

Book cover for Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living
If you're seeking instruction for your creative writing, MCPL can help. A search of the phrase "creative writing" in our catalog will bring up a variety of adult and children's books on the topic. The results will include items such as The Making of a Story: a Norton Guide to Creative Writing. Most of items brought up by this search will focus on the practical, how-to aspect of creative writing. A search of the term authorship will include some how-to texts as well, but also inspirational works such as Joyce Carol Oates' Soul at the White Heat: Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life. One book I read and enjoyed in this vein was Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. It is a collection of essays by well known authors such as Jonathan Franzen, Jennifer Weiner, and Nick Hornby about their experiences trying to make a living as writers. I learned, for instance, that even after Cheryl Strayed received her seemingly substantial advance for Wild, she was struggling to pay her bills.

There are different types of writing, of course. Even people who don't think of themselves as writers nonetheless do a lot of writing at work. Business writing includes a variety of forms of writing, from seeking information from a coworker through e-mail to putting together the input of a dozen people into a grant proposal. If you're looking to improve your business writing, try some of our books on the topic. We also provide access to online classes about business writing through our Gale Courses database. Available courses include Effective Business Writing, Writing Effective Grant Proposals, and the Fundamentals of Technical Writing. Gale Courses also offers some creative writing classes, such as Romance Writing and Writing Young Adult Fiction.

How to Not Write Bad by Ben Yagoda book coverIn addition to the lofty goals of sharing ideas and stories, there are more mundane aspects to writing, specifically spelling and grammar. Wait, don't go! It's true, many people don't get excited about spelling and grammar. They're the plumbing of the written word. Dull, but vital. So take a look at our writing handbooks if you need to refresh your memory on the proper use of commas or figure out what a semicolon is for (I'm still not sure). If just the thought of the MLA Handbook makes you weep, try something less formal like How to Not Write Bad: the Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them.

In addition to our paper and online writing resources, we also have teen writing clubs at Bethesda, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Kensington Park, Potomac, and Silver Spring. Share your work and meet other writers in an open, supportive environment. In addition, the Silver Spring Writers Meetup Group, which consists of writers of all levels of writing experience and ages, often holds their meetings at our Silver Spring branch.

MCPL offers opportunities for customers to meet published writers at one of our many author events. For instance, children's book writer Hena Khan, author of It's Ramadan Curious George, will be the next speaker in our Contemporary Conversations series. She'll be at Silver Spring on June 4 at 4 pm. (Registration required).

Well, look at that. The page isn't blank anymore. Having written is much easier than the actual writing.


Mark S.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A May of Memoirs

In May, the world springs full of flowers, budding trees, and drooping bushes, laden with a riot of color and noise. The natural world comes to life again, striding confidently around winter’s corner and declaring, “I’m back! Do you want to hear some new stories?” And most of us say yes; yes we do. In the natural world, it’s blossoms and bees; in the literary world, it’s memoirs.

Memoirs seem to be making a comeback - or maybe they never went away? - but I feel like they are everywhere, with their juicy inclusiveness and alluringly long lashes: “You are in my life now. I’m ready if you are. Here’s my story.” Isn’t everyone you’ve ever heard of, and not heard of, writing their life story? This isn’t a criticism, but a recognition of the natural impulse to share. A venerable pastime is literary voyeurism, allowing us to peek in on a memoirist’s desires and dreams. A healthy indulgence, all because we can.

Book cover for Seven Commentaries on the Gallic War by Julius Casesar
The impulse to tell others our stories in the form of a memoir is not new. Julius Caesar’s memoir of the Gallic Wars he fought, entitled Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, describes the nine years of battles and intrigues fought against the Germanic and Celtic peoples in Gaul who opposed him. Interestingly, he directed his memoir to the plebeians to bolster his tenuous position with the Senate. He was propagandizing to the masses using memoir as his messenger.

Book cover for Walden by David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau’s famous 1854 memoir entitled Walden, or  Life in the Woods, was written about the two years of his life spent at Walden Pond. There, Thoreau records his thoughts on living simply and communing with nature. He also addresses how very personal the personal narrative is. “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” Thoreau said he saw Walden as an opportunity to answer questions others had about his seclusion - what did he eat, did he get lonely - but he was also well aware that the reader would “accept such portions as apply to him.” And here, I would venture, is the key to a memoir’s success: recognition of one’s self in another’s story. Recommending memoirs is a challenge because if you cannot relate to the author’s point of view, then there are not many other “characters” to whom you can flee for narrative comfort.

Memoirs also exude what I’d call “memoirishness,” a mixture of a well-made memory’s buttery softness with its sandpapery self-protectiveness: “I love telling you all about me, but I can and will keep you at arm’s length if I want. So there!” Memoirishness includes a certain “noirishness,” a connection to its racy film cousin with its lightness and darkness, its mirrored reflections and smoky shadows, a chiaroscuro of revelation and obfuscation. What are we allowed to see? What do we infer? What is still left in the dark? Perhaps we’ll never know, but shall we admit that we are curious?

Well, I will admit that I am very curious. Other people’s lives can be fascinating. People we (mostly) don’t know and are (presumably) curious about enthusiastically and openly share private stuff. So here are some memoirs that have accomplished what many memoirists set out to do: grab our attention, shake things up, and wait to hear what we think:

Comedienne Amy Schumer’s very candid memoir The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo about growing up on Long Island and becoming funny and famous.

Novelist Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, about her lifelong friendship with fellow writer and Sarah Lawrence classmate Lucy Grealy.

Goldie Hawn’s A Lotus Grows from the Mud, about her youth spent in Takoma Park, Maryland and subsequent success in show business.

Faith Salie’s Approval Junkieabout the NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” and CBS News Sunday Morning journalist’s life, marriage, and inveterate approval seeking.

Patricia Gucci’s In the Name of Gucci, about the heir to the Gucci fashion business and love child of its founder Aldo Gucci.

Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, about the loss of her daughter.

If you put the word memoirs in our catalog search, you will get titles galore. Here are a just few on order that caught my eye, but there are many more, so don’t be shy:

Gone: a Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym; My Mother’s Kitchen by Peter Gethers; Nevertheless: a memoir by Alec Baldwin; You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie; This is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe; Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In).

“Let me tell you some stories. My stories. Maybe your stories too.” So says the memoir. And I think I shall, because I like being invited in, even if, when I get to the last page, I have to let go. I will remember you.


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's that Kid from Algebra Class?

Everyone’s heard of Superman, Wonder Woman, the X-Men, and the Avengers. But not all superhero books are about famous caped crusaders. Some books feature characters with superpowers who are otherwise ordinary people, with ordinary lives. They go to school. They have jobs. They worry about an upcoming math test, the school bully, and how to keep their super powers from hurting others. Some don't even want their superpowers.

It was a customer using our What Do I Check Out Next? service that clued me into to the surprising number of books about ordinary superheroes. Our What Do I Check Out Next? service offers readers personalized reading suggestions based on each customer's individual interests. In this particular case, the customer was asking for books about kids with cool super powers. While looking for books to answer the customer's question, I came across more material than I'd expect about ordinary superheroes. 

Book cover of the graphic novel Powers by Brian Michael BendisMost books featuring ordinary superheroes tend to be children's or teen books. There are, however, adult titles as well. There is an adult graphic novel series, for instance, called Ex Machina. It's about a civil engineer, Mitchell Hundred, who becomes the world's first superhero. Dissatisfied with the limited good he can do as a superhero, he puts away his tights, runs for mayor of New York City, and wins. The first book in the series is Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days. There's also a new graphic novel, which as been called a "cops and capes mashup," titled Powers. It's a police procedural about two homicide detectives, Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim, assigned to cases involving superpowers. Finally, there's Soon I Will Be Invincible. Doctor Impossible, evil genius and would be ruler of the world, languishes in prison, wondering if there was something better he could have done with his life.

Book cover for Joshua Dread by Lee Bacon
The are more children's books that feature ordinary kids with superpowers. Some focus on individual kids, some are about superhero schools, and some offer a twist, such as featuring the child of a supervillain as the main character. For instance, not only does Joshua Dread have to deal with the usual troubles of middle school, like bullies and homework, he also lives with a dreadful secret. The villains trying to take over the world are his parents. How embarrassing! When Joshua discovers he has powers of his own, life gets really complicated. The NERDS: National Espionage, Rescue, and Defense Society series is more Batman-esqe in that it's got heroes with gadgets. A group of five awkward misfits run a spy network out of their elementary school, battling a former junior beauty pageant contestant turned assassin. Finally, for the aspiring kid superhero, there's the Big Book of Superheroes. This how-to guide covers many aspects of becoming a superhero, from acquiring powers and finding a secret lair, to breaking the news to your parents that you have super powers.

Book cover of Who Is AC by Hope LarsonThere are also ordinary superhero books for teens. In Steelheart, David joins a group of resistance fighters dedicated to killing super humans and ending their tyranny. The supervillains of Vindico find they are getting too old to keep on fighting. They kidnap five teens with the intention of training them to become the next generation of villains. There's also the teen graphic novel Who Is AC?. Average teenager Lin acquires super powers after being zapped by...her cell phone. Now she has to learn how to use her powers, fight the villain, and still make her curfew.

You can find stories about more ordinary superheroes in our catalog. A subject search of the word superheroes will bring up the most complete least. You'll have to wade through the many items on more well known superheroes though. I haven't found a way to remove the best known superheroes from the results list and leave just their ordinary colleagues. Information staff at any of our branches can help. Or, you could try our What Do I Check Out Next? service. For those of you who like rooting for the bad guy, you're in luck. Just use the term supervillains.