Tales of a Fourth Grade Librarian or How I Came to Love Realistic Fiction by Alpha Selene DeLap
I came to librarianship in my fourth decade though in many ways I have been a librarian my entire life. Cut to the 1970s in a lower Manhattan (NYC) in a mixed-use loft apartment where in the far corner, across from my mother’s canvas stretchers and windowpanes of oil paint; I had a room full of dolls and stuffed animals spread out in a book checkout line. “Well, Pearl (an early 1950s doll with moveable eyelids and soft human-like hair), did you like the book you checked out a few weeks ago? You did? I’m glad, now you know that you owe a fine on that book. That will be 35 cents, please.”
By age nine I had created library cards for all of my dolls and stuffed animals. I mocked up catalog cards for my favorite books, including my own imagined history of check-out dates and borrowers. I was one of those kids who read the entire children’s section in alphabetical order and then because there weren’t any tween or teen spaces or even very much in the way of published literature, I entered the adult section of my local public library, Jefferson Market, at the age of ten with the librarian’s explicit permission: A hallowed moment.
I moved eight times before I was eight years old. In all of the moves after four, I read. I could read in the car until there wasn’t any more light. When I started to feel dizzy or nauseous, I would stick my head against the corner of the open window and I could read on for hours. In all of these moves across the United States, I began to believe that people and places were transitory and that the only way to truly learn about the world was to read about it. Authors of realistic fiction seemed to be the most adept at revealing the reasons, contradictory and confusing though they might be, that the world emerged and evolved the way it was.
For the past twelve years I have lived in the same city, I am now married with two small sons under ten who have shown me the amazing possibilities of fantasy fiction. Since he learned to read, my older son has sought out mythic narratives and sleeps with his Pullman’s collection of fairy tales beside his pillow each night. At the K-8 school where I am a teacher-librarian, each year during a unit on genres, my students build amazing displays of science fiction and fantasy, guiding me towards new gems. But– I return again and again to both realistic fiction and the literary memoir, reaping the bounty of insights that lie with these generic realms.
Over the past two months, I have read three new realistic novels published in 2014, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart; Half A World Away by Cynthia Kadohata; and Revolution by Deborah Wiles. All of three of books are fantastic and each quite different despite their shared realistic nature.
We Were Liars is a haunting and beautiful contemporary re-telling of King Lear. Situated on a private island near Martha’s Vineyard, Lockhart captures the smells, colors, tastes and noises perfectly. Cadence’s story is one of betrayal, revelation, and most importantly, coming-of-age. It is also a deconstruction of the fairy tale genre itself and I can see a bonfire of the classic red, green and blue fairy tale books from my childhood ablaze– pages crackling into the air. This is a realistic mixture of romance, mystery, and adventure.
Half a World Away is a rarely heard narrative about the cognitive dissonance and affective disconnect that has emerged in relation to cross-cultural adoption. Kadohota reveals protagonist Jaden’s traumatic experience of first world cosmopolitanism after spending his first eight years in an Eastern European orphanage. Jaden bristles at every turn. His anger and desperation in the face of his birth mother’s abandonment and his adoptive parents continuous misunderstandings are palpable and justified. However, a sense of home emerges through the process of adopting his baby brother in Kazakhstan. Jaden is able to find solace in a shared anguish and his journey towards comfort and connection expands the traditional notion of family in important ways.
Revolution is a collaborative story told by Sunny and Raymond, two adolescents experiencing the cataclysmic changes that came about in 1964 Mississippi during “Freedom Summer.” This was the summer when Lyndon Johnson passed the American Civil Rights act and young Northern college volunteers travelled to help register disenfranchised African-American people to vote. Wiles captures the complex swirling of cultural confusion and transformation that existed at that particular moment in time. What is especially moving about the intersecting narratives is the concurrent sense of hope, naivety, hubris, and courage on both their parts. Both young people are brave, make mistakes, and are defiant in the face of everyday injustice.
The main characters of all three of these books are wounded and incredibly flawed. They are often selfish, myopic and sometimes ignorant. For all of these reasons, I love them. An eventual examination of their own limits allows each character to understand themselves in important ways and provides alternative pathways towards acceptance and understanding that allows them to see the world in new ways. Cadence, Jaden, Sunny, and Raymond offer readers the gifts of clarity and redemption.
I feel absolutely blessed to be a librarian and to work with young people directly, exposing to them to new stories that work to illuminate their own lives. I look forward to my ongoing exploration of a range of fictional and nonfictional genres, while continuing to return again and again to my realistic home.
Alpha Selene DeLap is a full-time library and media specialist at the St. Thomas School, a K-8 independent school located in Medina, WA. I have teaching experience with all age groups, from kindergarten through the college level. She earned a Ph.D. in Communication and Media Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, an M.L.I.S. from the University of Washington and an M.A. in Comparative Literature from New York University. She lives in Seattle with her husband Jack, her two sons, Declan and Nicolas, and their two large dogs: a golden retriever, Blue, and a black labrador, Coal. You can find her on Twitter as @alphaselene.