Louise Brueggemann talks about libraries and books for young people

Louise Brueggemann is a Chicago-area librarian who has worked in public libraries and urban and suburban high schools, most recently at North Lawndale College Prep. She reviews children’s and young adult books for Kirkus Reviews. Previously, she was juvenile book buyer at the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver.

CMOS: Have you seen big changes in what young people want to read over the course of your career as a bookseller turned librarian?

LB: Young readers have always wanted books that engage them. The changes I’ve seen in their choices mostly reflect the difference in what’s available to them. Publishing itself has changed immensely, with major (unfortunately, often gender-specific) marketing that targets children. Middle-grade kids who like fantasy and mysteries read multivolume series of three hundred–plus pages per book that offer a lot of complexity of plot and characters—and often a movie tie-in.

Perhaps the greatest changes have been in young adult literature. Today not only is there a wealth of high-quality, sophisticated literature, but the emphasis has shifted to truly realistic fiction and away from the rather shallow problem novels of decades ago.

Young readers have always wanted books that engage them.

CMOS: Could you describe what you mean by “problem novels”?

LB: In the sixties and seventies there were a lot of formulaic novels that dealt with a single social problem (e.g., teen pregnancy, suicide, homosexuality) and offered some kind of moralistic resolution to that problem. An example that comes to mind is Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones by Ann Head (1967), in which the teenage protagonists deal with an unplanned pregnancy by getting married and are stigmatized by both sets of judgmental in-laws.

Contemporary books are more likely to have characters dealing with complex issues in nonstereotypical ways. An example is the graphic novel This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, about a girl straddling childhood and adolescence who has to come to grips not only with her own conflicted feelings about growing up, but with the complicated emotional lives of the adults around her.

CMOS: We keep hearing about the dumbing-down of literature and decreasing literacy among teens, but you say you see increasing sophistication.

LB: I don’t see a dumbing-down of literature for teens. Kids enjoy lightweight, popular books the same way adults do—as part of their overall diet of reading, which by the way includes all sorts of social media. I think that the way to combat any downward trends in literacy rates is to respond to teens’ interests. I hear a lot of requests for “drama,” by which teens mean fiction that involves romance, conflict, angst—all the usual teen concerns. Teens are interested in reading books that reflect their own diverse experiences. Urban teens may want to read Coe Booth’s Tyrell (2006) and gritty memoirs such as My Bloody Life: The Making of a Latin King by Reymundo Sanchez (2000).

I think that the way to combat any downward trends in literacy rates is to respond to teens’ interests.
I find that teen readers are no longer shy about their interest in reading about LGBT characters, and there’s a lot to choose from. One of my high school students this year kept renewing his favorite book: the award-winning Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz (2012). The beautifully written novel is about two very different, middle-class Latino boys who develop a close relationship. Sexual identity, philosophy, and family relationships are all presented in very nuanced ways.

CMOS: In the midst of all this “drama,” what happens to literary quality?

LB: There are upward of five thousand books published for children and young adults each year. Many of them wouldn’t fit the criteria of literary quality, but there are certainly far more outstanding books now than when I began my career.

A look at the winners of the Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature can attest to that. For instance, In Darkness by Nick Lake (2012) examines poverty, slavery, and survival through its use of parallel narratives, one of a Haitian boy in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and the other of Haiti’s revolutionary leader Toussaint l’Ouverture. Canadian Young Adult Book Award–winner My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt (2012) is a novel in verse that puts loss of innocence, drug use, and child prostitution against a backdrop of the narrator’s growing understanding of the power of words when she’s forced to read part of Milton’s Paradise Lost. While such books may not find wide readership among teens, their availability reflects respect for those who are skilled readers but more interested in the lives of teens than of adults.

CMOS: So would you say that young people themselves are demanding high-quality literature?

Hooking young readers by engaging them in books that interest them gives them a chance to become more critical and fluent readers.

LB: I would say that hooking young readers by engaging them in books that interest them gives them a chance to become more critical and fluent readers who self-select a wider range of literature. Or not. Not everyone ends up becoming a lifelong reader of good literature, but the opportunity is there, particularly when kids are exposed to good literature by librarians who share their love of reading.

CMOS: So far you’ve talked about fiction. Have there been pronounced changes in nonfiction over the years?

LB: Definitely. There is a lot more narrative, or literary, nonfiction now, and many of these books are being recognized by award committees. Nonfiction and biography have moved beyond the simple label of “educational” books that might have been perceived as boring, to a wide range of books in a variety of formats that use literary storytelling devices: plot, theme, characters, and voice.

Many are heavily researched, and it’s almost mandatory for authors to include a list of their sources, particularly for older children and teens. Claudette Colvin: Twice toward Justice by Phillip Hoose (2009) won the National Book Award for its portrayal of an African American teenager in 1950s Alabama who refused to give up her seat on a bus, paving the way for the more famous civil rights action taken by Rosa Parks. The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming (2014) is another example of an author using primary source material to tell a compelling story with an insider’s perspective. War Brothers: The Graphic Novel by Sharon McKay (2013), based on her 2008 novel, is a great entry point to the topic of child soldiers. The 2014 National Book Award went to Jacqueline Woodson for her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014).

CMOS: Obviously, there’s been a sea change in library technology over the last decades. What do you see as the most significant changes, and what effect have they had?

LB: The ubiquity of digital devices has meant big changes in the way that libraries connect to patrons. E-books and e-audio books have expanded access to material. There are many apps designed for children, from games to design apps that enhance teaching in STEM subjects. “Maker spaces” are cropping up in all types of libraries, and the availability of 3D printers to the general public is an exciting development.

CMOS: A final thought on the future of libraries?

LB: Libraries of all kinds are broadening their services to meet people’s needs. Libraries have moved way beyond the role of quiet spaces to conduct research while surrounded by books. Librarians are at the forefront of finding ways to provide access to technology, especially to those who don’t have Internet access or equipment at home. As communities’ needs change, libraries change to meet those needs. I believe that the future of libraries is bright.


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