Judging a Book By Its Cover: The Golden Compass

I never used to buy a book until I had read it. This was in school, when I had access to a well stocked public library and parents who were happy to take me to the library at least once a week. When I got older, I would walk there after school every day with my BFF.

Only once I had decided I loved a book would I go buy it. (Exceptions were made for Redwall and Harry Potter new releases, because I knew for sure I would like it.)

Somewhere along the line, I think I owned a set of His Dark Materials books. I was so strict about my book buying (or perhaps, my parents were so strict about it) that I even waited the two months it took for someone with The Subtle Knife out overdue to return it so I could find out what happens next – but I got it eventually, and I loaned it out, and it was never seen again.

The Golden Compass This is the version my mom checked out from the Johnson State College library children’s section for me one summer during TDI. I read it sitting in the dorm closet/wardrobe in the dorm room I shared with my mother. (They ran a “TDI for Grown-ups” back then, too, and it was my first time at sleepaway camp.)

This is also the edition we have in the secondary library at my school. It’s in rough shape by now, but it’s not so ugly that my students tell me, “I don’t want to touch it.” (That’s an actual student quote about an older edition of A Wrinkle in Time.)

When I eventually admitted that I was probably never going to see my copies again, if I ever even had a copy, I decided to go find a new edition. I was so frustrated, because it was right around the time the movie came out and they all had the printed-on “sticker” announcing “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE.” As a book collector, this was an unacceptable blemish.

The Golden CompassI eventually found a special edition hardcover, with bonus additional materials. It does still have a “sticker” on the front cover, but at least it’s advertising the new material instead of that awful movie.

From a book collector’s perspective, t’s a nice cover. As a librarian, I don’t think this is the version I would want. It doesn’t tell me anything about the story. It’s a collector’s edition, for people who already know the story, but it wouldn’t tell my students anything about what’s inside. The version I first read told me there was a girl, at least – an important factor for me, then and now – and a bear and a mouse, and it took place somewhere cold. (The British title gives a better idea of the setting with Northern Lights, but I like the continuity of titles in the American editions.)

Another consideration is the age range implied by the cover art. The version I own is the “adult” cover, but His Dark Materials has been published as everything from children’s/Middle Grade, to YA, to adult. Our school only has a copy in the secondary library, but elementary students may visit to check it out. (We don’t often double up on copies for budgetary reasons.)

The Golden CompassThis Spanish edition looks like a kids’ book. It would fit in comfortably with my collection in the elementary school, and I think the high schoolers would pass it over as too “childish.”

I like that this tells me a lot about the story, more than most editions. We have a girl, a bear, a man, a cliffghast and and a woman. You can’t, however, see anyone’s dæmons. I remember flipping back to the front cover of the version I read and realizing the little mouse was Pantalaimon. I guess this cover has the same pleasures of realization: oh, so that‘s Lyra, and Iorek, and Lee Scorseby, and Serefina!

The Golden Compass I like this Dutch edition a lot. If I had free choice for a new copy, and this cover was available in English, I would want this one for the secondary library. It looks like a YA book, but it still says a lot about the story: the bridge to the stars, the alethiometer, and Lyra herself. The cover is a lot darker over all, which I think fits the story better, and it adds to the “older” feeling of the book. The detailed illustrations make it feel less childlike, but students might find the style dated, and kids are harsh art critics when it comes to book covers.

(Why isn’t she wearing gloves? Are her fingers freezing to that gold?)

This is the only cover so far that doesn’t feature Iorek. I guess huge armored talking polar bears are just that awesome.

The Golden CompassMost of the covers depict one of a few scenes. This German edition shows the same point as the American edition that I read in school, or the scene just before the Dutch cover. The Spanish edition above is the only one to show a completely different part of the book, although Iorek still features.

I wonder why this scene, and not something in Oxford or London? Is it the “Rule of Cool”? Some other reason?

Only one version goes a different way, and that’s this American version from Scholastic, which features a Balthus painting that we’re probably supposed to think is Lyra, possibly in the dining hall at Oxford?

The Golden CompassThis must be one of those editions for “grown-ups,” because it would be a hard sell to most kids. It lacks the action and adventure in the other covers – hot air balloons! polar bears! witches! cities in the sky! Lyra is dynamic and active in those covers, in hot air balloons, riding bears, reading her “golden compass” by the light of the aurora where she can see a city in the sky! This Lyra is still, stiff, and the painting is dark.

As a “grown-up,” I think I prefer the hardback special edition I bought. It harkens back to the fact that this is a children’s book, even if you’re reading it as an adult.


“What Are You Reading?” Wednesday (October 22, 2014)

Young Adult Literature: From Romance to RealismWhat are you currently reading?

I’m back to nonfiction, with Michael Cart’s Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism. I really enjoyed The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature. I took a children’s literature class in undergrad as a filler for credits, but other than that, I haven’t studied literature in a formal sense since high school, where my crowning achievement was an A paper on a book I had not even cracked open (Lord of the Flies), and answering the question “how many times can I drop the F-bomb in a short story inspired by M.T. Anderson’s Feed before I get in trouble?” It wasn’t that I didn’t like books. I loved books.

I just didn’t like school.

So now I’m catching up on all of this stuff (like who was Newbury, and why do we have an award named after him? or Caldecott? or thematic changes by decade in literature popular with people between the ages of twelve and nineteen?) and it’s really enjoyable!

11595276What did you recently finish?

I finished something! I was so proud of myself. I’ve been having a hard time finishing things, but I read The Miseducation of Cameron Post straight through with no other books interrupting me. It’s the best written, most believable story I’ve read in a long time and I couldn’t put it down.

Finishing left me hungry. It might have turned into a book hangover, were I not already halfway through The Witch’s Boy, which I already knew was an enjoyable read, so I jumped right back into that. I had less than half left to finish reading, so now I’m done that, too.

What do you think you’ll read next?

I still have an assortment of books left on my “currently reading” shelf that need to be read or removed. I never actually quite finished The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature, so maybe Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism will get me back into that particular genre to finish it off. Otherwise, I still have a heap of half-finished print and digital books languishing…

Sunday Morning Paper: Everything That’s Wrong With

We Still Need Spirit Day: Remembering How it Started and Who it’s For

We have to, then, show them we want them to live. We need to advocate and fight for justice and for resources and for safety for our youth. We have to give them strength and support and love and guidance. We have to care about the lack of access to mental health and homelessness resources for them, especially those who are working class, trans, and/or of color. We have to care about transphobic school policies that infringe on students’ identities and rights, facilitate violence against them, and drive them further away from their peers and community. We have to care about patriarchal norms and dynamics and language and how gender, sexuality, and sexual dynamics even at a very young age in grade school reinforces and starts a lot of toxic habits that can manifest dangerously later in teen years. We have to say “You, love, have spirit like nothing and no one else, and it is so beautiful. And so, I will stand behind you, with you, even when you don’t feel like you can get up.”

As Anita Sarkeesian Shows, Online Harassment Can Be a Life and Death Issue

Yesterday, feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a talk she planned to give at Utah State University after an anonymous person threatened to massacre her and the crowd. The threat came in an anonymous email, “This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history and I’m giving you a chance to stop it.” In a line reminiscent of Elliot Rodgers’ manifesto, the person claimed that “feminists have ruined my life” and then signed the note as Marc Lepine—the gunman who claimed he was “fighting feminism” when he murdered 14 women in Montreal in 1989. As she made clear on Twitter, Sarkeesian did not cancel the talk because of the threat—she has received many violent threats over the past two years—but because the school and local police could not adequately guarantee her safety. Utah law allows people to carry concealed weapons in all places—apparently even into a lecture hall where someone has threatened a massacre.

This ‘Book Of Witches’ Casts A Fascinating, Sobering Spell

[A]cademic study of the witch hunts always says as much about the era in which the scholarship is being conducted as about the hunts themselves. She also points out that many of the scholarly conclusions as to what underscored the witch hunts are exculpatory, to some degree: it was agricultural ignorance, or it was a mold outbreak, or it was something else comfortingly remote from a contemporary audience.

The 10 best tales of online drama from 10 years of Fandom_Wank

The MsScribe saga isn’t just a story about one woman. It’s a story about an entire Internet community trapped in a cult of belief so intense that one woman was able to manipulate its entire social structure to benefit herself. In the tale the Bad Penny writeup unfolds, MsScribe’s trolling wasn’t mindless; it was designed to highlight how fundamentally bizarre the social dynamics of early Harry Potter fandom were, and that just from a few calculated interactions with certain fans, anyone could rise through the ranks to become a BNF, or Big Name Fan.


“Our notions of digital utopianism are deeply rooted in a communal wing of American counter-culture from the 1960s. That group of people have had an enormous impact on how we do technology. […] Their ideas of what a person is and what a community should be has suffused our idealized understanding of what a virtual community can be and what a digital citizen should be. That group believed that what you had to do to save the world was to build communities of consciousness — places where you would step outside mainstream America and turn away from politics and democracy, turn away from the state, and turn instead to people like yourself and to sharing your feelings, your ideas and your information, as a way of making a new world.”

My Thoughts On: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

11595276I finished reading Emily M. Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post yesterday during my lunch break. I first heard about it recently, when it was removed from a Delaware school’s reading list (and the reading list was subsequently cancelled entirely to avoid controversy.*)
*spoiler: it didn’t work

Officially, Miseducation was removed for “profanity,” but let’s all be honest here: it’s because Cameron is a lesbian, and because she’s resistant to the “ex-gay” therapy she receives at a Christian “school” where she’s sent by her evangelical aunt when she’s outed by a “friend with benefits.”

I didn’t grow up anywhere near Miles City, but it sounds an awful lot like Milton(, Vermont). The profanity never sounded gratuitous to my ears; that’s how rural kids talk. We didn’t have a cool old abandoned hospital, but we did have a broken down creamery where teenagers went to smoke weed and graffiti walls. I only went in there once, as a senior, in broad daylight. I was never one of the “cool” kids like Cameron, who grieve by acting out.

Cameron is sent to Promise by her evangelical aunt, who raises her after her parents die suddenly in a terrible car accident. This is going to sound weird, but bear with me: I felt like the “dead parents” thing didn’t fit in with the story. It was the one thing that didn’t quite work for me, although Danforth’s writing rang painfully true when Cameron talks about how she never knew her parents as people, and how they became saints in her memory, untouchable because she felt so guilty, like they died because she was kissing a girl and shoplifting.

My father passed away when I was fourteen, the summer before I started high school. Unlike Cameron’s parents, my family saw my father’s death coming. I guess I wanted her parents’ deaths to play into her character more – the only time it came up directly was when her counselor suggests that her parents’ parenting mistakes “made” her act out on “inappropriate gender identity” and “sexual sin.” At the same time, I knew how after a parent dies, it’s everything but also nothing. How do you write that? I don’t know.

I wonder why Danforth decided to go with the dead parents route. After all, it’s not like parents never send their kids to “ex-gay/conversion therapy” – although it is now banned in many states, at least for minors.

Either way, I couldn’t put it down. The first half or so seemed long, but maybe that was because of the sense of impending doom. Everyone knows Cameron gets sent to Promise, so every time she kissed a girl, I kept wondering, is this it? is this the time she gets caught? 

In Kat’s article about the book banning controversy, she says

It’s a lot like But I’m a Cheerleader except a lot less campy and a lot more depressing. It takes place around the same time as the cult classic movie, beginning in 1989. It was the year I started elementary school, and if the world was a different place for LG and B youth, trans youth didn’t even “exist.” Don’t expect the novel to be painless if you grew up queer in the 90s. Having read the novel, I can attest to its impact, since I did grow up queer in the 90s.

I’m a little younger than Kat, and much younger than Cameron. I was born in 1989. But I grew up in a rural town like Miles City – only, we didn’t even have anything exciting like the Bucking Horse Sale – and I remember VHS tapes and looking through the tiny rental store for something, anything out of the mainstream. (I wasn’t looking for queer content, because approximately every person I ever knew realized I was a lesbian before I did. I was looking for anime, and the one thing the rental shop had available was Princess Mononoke in the “Adults Only” cabinet.)

Maybe it was that, or Danforth’s beautiful writing, but I believed in Cameron in a way I haven’t believed in a story protagonist in a long time. Maybe it was the first person narration? I don’t know. I wrote before about how we lose some of that immersive reading we had as tweens when we get older, but I found it again in this book. It’s that good.

The ending left me hungry for more, but in what I think of as “a His Dark Materials way.” I want to know what happens to Cameron throughout the rest of her life, immediately after up to wherever she’s writing from, but I don’t want to be told. I don’t think I want a sequel. (Of course, I would read one, if Danforth wrote it.) Some of Cameron’s reflective narration hints that she turns out okay, especially when she’s reflecting on the pseudoscientific nature of her “therapy” at Promise.

I resisted the urge to run around, recommending this book to everyone I’ve ever met until I finished reading it. (Last time I enthused about a book I hadn’t finished reading, I was disappointed by the ending and had to eat my words.) Now that I know how it ends, I can say, wholeheartedly, “everyone I’ve ever met and everyone I’ve never met should, without a doubt, read this book.”

Judging a Book by its Cover: Hetty Feather

Hetty Feather          Before starting at the school where I work, I had never heard of Jacqueline Wilson. Since then, I’ve read many of her stories and just fallen in love with all of her characters. The previous librarian purchased a full set of the Nick Sharrat illustrated paperbacks, and they’re very charming. The first title I read was The Lottie Project, and I like to use the lovely new version in contrast to the very dated 1999 edition to illustrate to my students why we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

I recently finished reading the Hetty Feather books – Hetty FeatherSapphire Battersea and Emerald Star – and went looking for other versions, out of curiosity. For the most part, Goodreads lists the Nick Sharrat illustrated versions that I read from my library – no weird old 1990s vibes here!

I like the simple, straightforward and inviting look of these books. They look like books I want to read, and I feel like they capture the tone very well. Although Hetty’s life is difficult, she is an optimist, and she finds love and kindness where she can and never turns bitter, so the cheerful look of the covers is well suited to the books.

… but then there’s these Kindle edition. 19314546

I have no idea what this book is about. There’s a sad redheaded girl, holding a black cat – does Hetty ever have a cat? it’s been over a year, so maybe I’ve forgotten – wearing what loos like a tutu or dance petticoat, and definitely not Victorian-era proper undergarments. The lettering and curlicues make this look like a YA novel, except that the age of the protagonist is too young for that. I seriously don’t know what the cover designers here were going for, but I don’t like it. I can’t imagine that my elementary students would want to read this book, and if you sold it to a high schooler on the cover, I think they’d be disappointed, because it wouldn’t be the book they thought they were getting into.

What’s up with these covers? Maybe cover design isn’t quite as important for ebooks? I knew a guy in undergrad who liked to lament about the move from vinyl to .MP3 because smaller space would mean less design. I laughed then, but now maybe I get what he meant then.

“What Are You Reading?” Wednesday (October 15, 2014)

What are you reading?

11595276I’m sticking to it. So far, I’ve knocked one book off the shelf. More on that in a  minute.

I keep picking up books and then not finishing them. I still haven’t finished The Witch’s Boy, even though it’s great, and I started The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which is also really good, but in a different way. Maybe I just can’t stick with one thing for too long.

Right now, the list includes: Totto-chan: The Little Girl in the WindowThe Island of Excess LoveSuperman: The High Flying History of the Man of SteelDiamond (in the Hetty Feather series), AfterworldsThe Wind Singer, and The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature – and more.

These are all wonderful books! I just can’t seem to stick with any of them for very long. (That’s probably why I’m twelve books behind on my Goodreads Challenge 2014.) Does that ever happen to you?

17204619What did you recently finish reading?

I zipped through Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I read it cover-to-cover, and I hadn’t even started it last week. I think my book bouncing has a lot to do with burnout, so reading about the other introverts helped soothe me. I was hoping for a few more practical tips and tricks (you can’t arrange to work from home when you’re a school librarian, e.g.), but this was a nice (ahem) quiet corner to retreat into when I’m overwhelmed.

I did have some critique of the casual classism of the book, but that will get it’s own post.

What do you think you’ll read next?

As mentioned, I am not allowed to start anything new until I have finished – or dropped – five books from my “currently reading” shelf. So I’ll be working my way through that for awhile.

Slice of Life: Desert of Our Love

Slice of LifeDuring study abroad, I stopped reading fiction.

I didn’t do it on purpose. I had so much else to do. There were papers to write and kanji to cram, but it wasn’t just that. I had all of Tokyo, all of Japan, to see, and only ten months to do it.

This was in 2009-2010. iPhones had been invented two or three years ago, but they were expensive and smartphones weren’t ubiquitous. I didn’t have an ereader.

The study abroad center had a small library, but it was all nonfiction and a very small selection of translated Japanese literature: The Tale of Genji, probably some Haruka Murakami, that sort of thing.

I hate to say it, but I was Japan’d out. (I wasn’t too burned out on it, because I moved back a year later and I’ve lived here ever since.) I stopped listening to Jpop, too.

During the semester, I had enough to keep me occupied, so I didn’t really miss it. That was a particularly good year for anime, too. I remember a lot of time spent debating and predicting what we thought would happen next in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and Durarara!!. So I wasn’t completely starved for stories, until I realized how long it had been since I read a book.

6476120I asked my mom to send me Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, on the recommendation from a friend who really loved it. She packed it in my next box of candy (do you know how hard it is to get Twizzlers here?), and I was hooked. I bought the rest of the series as I got to them, and read Dark Tower all over the world: in Tokyo, in Vermont, in Boston, in Seoul. I started it in a tiny room I rented in Tokyo, and finished it in, you guessed it, a tiny room I rented where I lived in Boston, about a year and a half later.

I read other books in the meanwhile, but I remember the weight of Song of Susannah in my purse, pulling it out while we ate breakfast at the study abroad hotel in Seoul. I loved the soft feel of the pages as I read the end of The Dark Tower back in Boston. It took me months to finish (yours truly reads very slowly), and the book was in pretty rough shape.

My Dark Tower books are now among the only print books I have in my apartment. There’s just not space in this shoebox for everything, but I just had to have them here again, a reminder not to starve myself for stories again. I remember how it felt when I started reading fiction again, the way the words poured into me, and then out of me – I wrote fiction for the first time in months within hours of starting The Gunslinger.

It’s a lot easier for me to access fiction these days – the Nook app on my iPhone is my favorite, and I’m a librarian – but those books sit there and remind me that we carry our stories with us, anywhere in the world.