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Oral Literary Traditions: Storytelling

I love my books. Words on a page yellowed with age, the smell of old books, the way they look on my bookshelf all neat and orderly… I just love books. I’ve been known to download and enjoy an ebook or ten, but it’s no secret to those who know me that I favour a good ol’ physical book. However, I come from a long line of storytellers. My people—the Appalachians—were known for their oral stories.

regionmap
(The area in white is considered Appalachia, as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission.)

There were always a few people in each community known for their wordsmith capabilities, who could pull words out of thin air and stick them with other words to form even better sentences that could make you laugh, cry, or just plain think. When I was a kid, a few family members, friends, and neighbours would gather on the front porch at twilight during the warmest time of the year with a glass of sweet iced tea in hand to cool us from the oppressive heat of the summer’s day. The lightning bugs would be blinking and the frogs would be ribbitting, and it was at that moment, when the sky was burning into darkness, that stories would be told. Inevitably, the topic at hand would remind someone of a story, passed down to them by a long-deceased relative or friend. The first few sentences were punctuated by long sips of iced tea, keeping the audience rapt attention (or perhaps creating impatience for the person to get on with the story), then the storyteller smoothly began to weave a tale, playing to our reactions and expectations. And even though I love my books, these front porch gatherings have remained some of my fondest memories from childhood. I maintain this early and consistent exposure to storytelling helped me become a reading superstar at school and fostered a love for writing my own stories.

In the Western world, we tend to favour the written word over the oral one, but there is something about storytelling that is innately personal and interactive. Whether at an intimate gathering or in a large group, it feels like the storyteller is telling you—and only you—a personal story. The storyteller works to keep the audience’s attention and is able to tailor and tweak the story by “feeling” the mood of audience. For years and years before the advent of movies, television, and radio, my people—and people around the world—told stories for entertainment. People gathered together to deliver tales they had inherited from an older generation. Some of the most popular stories to tell, the “Jack” and the “Grandfather” tales and the “Br’er Rabbit” stories, had been brought to the mountains of Appalachia from the British Isles, Germany, and places in the west, central, and south of Africa. Carried by immigrants to their new mountain homes and by people who were forced to migrate due to the slave trade, these stories remained relatively intact as they travelled from place to place and home to home. They were passed down from generation to generation and were favourites at family and community gatherings. Beginning in the late 1800s, Appalachian culture was “discovered” by folks residing outside the region when they came to the area looking to reap the plenteous coal and timber there. Its ballads, arts and crafts, and the oral stories and traditions were becoming more of an interest to folklorists; it was during this time that these stories began to be written down. One such folklorist, Richard Chase, travelled to North Carolina and interviewed scores of folks, writing down the stories that had been passed to them by their elders.

Storytelling was important for literacy in Appalachia. There weren’t many people who could read or write (there were schools in the region, but the challenging mountainous terrain made it difficult to get there, especially if the school was quite far from home; also, reliance on farming as a way of life made any kind of consistent schooling difficult because families relied on everyone for labour) and books were very expensive to buy. For a culture that made their living farming and whose economic system was based on bartering, oral storytelling was the most important literacy tool available. Knowledge, history, ancestry, religion, values, and morals were passed down, incorporated into fantastic tales designed to keep you on the edge of your seat and subtly teach you and thing or two about life. Appalachians weren’t the only folks who created stories and passed them down. Storytelling can be found in cultures around the world. How is storytelling just as important in building literacy skills as reading a printed book?

“Understanding and creating narratives is a fundamental literacy skill—it is also a universal human activity. When students work with written texts, recite or listen to stories, or present narratives through non-verbal means, such as art or dance, they are learning to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate their world. Teachers can build rewarding experiences for students that activate their natural love for and interest in stories. They can do this in a way that expands children’s fluency and confidence with language, as well as their respect for the rich diversity of narrative approaches and language use across cultures. As students experience narratives from different cultures, they gain perspectives on people and stories in worlds that may be unfamiliar. This will be valuable to students in many ways, for example by helping them bring a sense of perspective to their own culture and stories” (PBS Learning Media).

If you’re not familiar with oral stories, I urge you to try attending a storytelling event or, if that’s not possible, listening to or watching storytellers online. World Storytelling Day is March 20th and is an international celebration of the oral art of storytelling. Storytellers of Canada / Conteurs du Canada has an events page of storytelling events happening in each province and online. Storytelling isn’t just for children, but for adults, too. And don’t be afraid of making up your own story! The more you do it, the better you’ll be.

For further information on how oral storytelling can improve literacy, please visit The Power of Story: Using Storytelling to Improve Literacy Learning. For examples of the art of storytelling or to simply enjoy a story or several, please see:

Telling Tales

Storytelling Sampler

Ghost Stories by Jackie Torrence–Part 1

Ghost Stories by Jackie Torrence–Part 2

Richard Chase Tells Three Jack Tales From Southern Appalachia

Ray Hicks Telling Four Traditional Jack Tales

Appalachian Storyteller Ray Hicks Tells “Jack and the Giant”

If you would like more information about prominent storytellers or oral literature in general, please feel free to contact me at catherine.bellamy@surrey.ca.

-Catherine Bellamy, Youth Services Librarian – Community Outreach, Guildford Branch, Surrey Libraries.

Reader’s Fatigue

I have reader’s fatigue.

Today, I asked my colleague, “What is the point of reading all these books?” Like, there’s just another pile waiting for me anyway, and it’s never going to end, and some of the books are literally the same story as the one I just read (I read a lot of YA). So, I’m feeling kind of bitter, jaded, and mostly fatigued about the whole thing. Has anyone else felt this way?

She told me to take a break, to listen to music instead. Good advice. Except for the fact that one of the books in my pile is an interlibrary loan, and I NEED TO GET TO IT. Do you know that stressful, anxious, urgent feeling I am speaking of?

It also doesn’t help that I am currently on committees that require me to read books (ALA’s Over The Rainbow booklist and the Red Cedar Award selection committee). I also have magazines that I subscribe to that I haven’t even had a chance to even flip through. Don’t even get me started on the journals that route my way at work. Why did I sign up for all those again? Oh right, so I can look through them to find MORE BOOKS TO READ. And I have to apologize to all my friends and anyone else who has loaned me a book of theirs, because they are sitting in the corner gathering dust, as I wade my way first through library books and have put your lovingly bought and owned books on the back burner.

Then there’s the book club I’m in, which some of you may be familiar with: the Book Club for Masochists. Each month a different genre is pulled out of a hat. This is a great way to read books from genres that one normally would never explore. I love this idea! And I like the people that are in the book club! But this month, I bowed out. I just didn’t participate (it’s mainly online). So, I felt guilt and shame about it. I wanted to be part of it, but I just had no time. And February is a shorter month than the rest so that makes it even more time-constrained.

It’s a never ending cycle and I need some intervention. Please, fellow readers and reader advisors, help me! How can I rediscover my love for reading when I am feeling completely burnt out? What is your advice? Do I just have to give up some of the titles that I have at home? Return them and release them back into the wild, and hope that one day they will cross my path again when I am feeling better?

Or when do you give up on a book? How many pages do you give it before you toss it back into the Return Bin? My threshold is about 50-100 pages, unless the first few pages are excruciatingly bad. Or do you power through so you can feel accomplished? I’m a quitter. I don’t have time to read bad books if I’m not into it. Or perhaps I need to quit reading for awhile and try and find myself again.

Someone just told me Reader’s Fatigue is an actual thing. Is it? Does anyone know?  I didn’t do any research on this topic. I am just expressing what I am going through at the moment, and hopefully it will touch a nerve with someone out there. Has anyone else heard of or suffered through Reader’s Fatigue? If so, how did you get through it?

– Alan Woo, Information & Teen Services Librarian, Guildford Branch, Surrey Libraries 

UPDATE:

Today, the next morning, I am feeling better. Maybe all I needed was a good night’s sleep? Or maybe I just needed a BETTER BOOK? I ended up taking that interlibrary loan I spoke of for my morning commute read, and wow, I found myself thoroughly enjoying it and dare I say, chuckling audibly on transit. This is the book that may have saved me from myself:

Meaty by Samantha Irby.

meaty-by-samantha-irby

This book is a collection of essays that read like hilarious blog posts from Samantha Irby, creator of the blog Bitches Gotta Eat. Thank you Ms. Irby for rescuing me and renewing my faith in reading!

Do you have a book recommendation that would save someone from Reader’s Fatigue?

 

Reading Trumps Ignorance

Reading can often open our minds to the experiences of others in ways that our individual lived experience cannot. After the most recent election in the United States many libraries and readers have united to recommend books that can help  counter voices of prejudice and ignorance. #Resist.

Here is a selection of links to inform and inspire:

ICYMI:  Libraries Across Borders List – Books that Trump will never read – but you should
https://bclaconnect.ca/perspectives/2017/01/31/lac/

 

11 Books to Helps Us Make it Through a Trump Presidency
http://bookriot.com/2016/11/21/11-books-help-us-make-trump-presidency/

Donald Trump is afraid of Books
https://bookriot.com/2017/02/08/donald-trump-is-afraid-of-books/

Libraries Resist: A round-up of Tolerance, Social Justice and Resistance in US Libraries

http://bookriot.com/2017/02/10/libraries-resist-round-tolerance-social-justice-resistance-us-libraries/
San Francisco Public Library’s We Love Diverse Books program:

http://sfpl.org/releases/2017/01/06/san-francisco-public-library-celebrates-diversity-in-literature-we-love-diverse-books-january-2017-programs/
And: http://sfpl.org/pdf/book-and-materials/welovediversebooks.pdf

But, what about fake news, you ask? Try these:

How to spot fake news:
https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/dec/18/what-is-fake-news-pizzagate

A Policy Proposal for driving out fake news and promoting better sources of journalism:
http://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/february-2017/de-institutionalization-fake-news-and-the-crisis-of-journalism/
Has your library used any of these ideas or similar to create displays, book lists or other RA activities?  Tell us in the comments.

Blind Date with a Book

If your library hasn’t tried a “Blind Date with a Book” display yet, put it on your radar for next year.  With a bit of planning and organization it’s a great way to inject a bit of whimsy into your displays.

The New Westminster Public Library has run a Blind Date with a Book for a few years now, and it’s great to hear patrons get enthusiastic when they see the display go up again.  We make sure we have signage that tells the public what to do (the first year a few people thought we were giving out presents and wanted to keep the books!) and use distinctive wrapping paper that catches the eye. We don’t limit ourselves to books – DVDs, audiobooks, and CDs have all made it in at one time or another.

blind-date-1

We write brief descriptions of the book and print them on labels that we stick to the front, and photocopy the barcode and attach this too, so the surprise isn’t ruined by having to unwrap the book at checkout.

blind-date-2

Once the display is up, we schedule social media posts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and enjoy filling up the displays and getting feedback. Admittedly people don’t always like their blind date book, but taking a chance is part of the fun! This is a great way to get people to read out of their comfort zone. Staff across the library also enjoy having input as to what gets recommended, and everyone loves the challenge of writing a brief teaser description for the materials on display.

blind-date-3

How does your library run a blind date with a book display? What clever ways have you found to entice readers to pick up something unfamiliar?

 

Reading Resolutions

New Year = New reading you?

One should not feel obliged to take a reading resolution in the new year, but the holiday break is a fine opportunity to review the past year’s reading habits or trends and to imagine new goals or intentions. So what kinds of reading resolutions are possible? I wanted to take the time to go through some of the more common ones if you are not sure whether you really need a new challenge, or to make or break a habit for 2017. I divided them into three groupings:

1)Number of books

2)Reading habits

3)Diversify

1)Number of books tends to be the most common one I hear, probably because I spend too much time on Goodreads and the yearly challenge is strictly about the number of books you intend to tackle in the coming year. You can start any time and you can adjust it on the fly so if 20 was your initial goal but you are having a banner year – bump it up to 50 to stretch yourself. Or conversely: you were aiming for 100 and your life circumstances are going to make that impossible? Bump it back to something more obtainable and just slightly stretchy. One of my goals is roughly to read less books than I did last year, so I’ve set it for 50.

2)Next up is reading/book habits! Maybe you would like to do more reading during certain times of day: before bed, in the morning, during your commute. Maybe you would like to read more with partners or children. Maybe this year you will join a book club or article group to incorporate more community and discussion in your reading life. Other common resolutions address tackling that TBR pile or shelf that is taking over your apartment! You might commit to “shopping your shelves” the next time you’re looking to pick up a book to read. Another good one is to try visiting the library instead of bookstore when space or money for additional reads is an ongoing problem – it’s free and you must give the books back after (although no one is stopping you from purchasing a newly discovered treasure.) Related is a one-book-in = one-book-out policy, which seems cruel but perhaps necessary if space or clutter is an issue.

3)Last is one of my favourites: Diversify! If you’ve spent a little time reviewing your past reading habits and trends, you may have noticed a tendency to read similar kinds of things over time. That is not bad per se, we all tend to read what we know we will like, but maybe there is good stuff out there that you are missing! Or perhaps you’ve been feeling like you are in a reading rut. Well, one way to tackle this particular problem is to take on a reading challenge. Several you might have heard of include the Book Riot yearly Read Harder challenge, the Book Club for Masochists genre reading challenge, or a diverse reading challenge such as those several of my workplaces have run – where the focus is on reading more women, minorities, and local authors using a points system or review model. These can be fun, and have definitely stretched my reading above and beyond what I normally read. One of the benefits of joining a challenge like these is the community aspect, where you can talk and give advice on potential reads to meet the challenge – because if there is one thing I like almost as much as reading books – it’s talking about them too.

But you needn’t feel obliged to take on someone else’s challenge wholesale. I’ve seen some interesting adaptions to different challenges already, thereby creating your own personal reading challenge to explore an area, a format, or a genre you haven’t spent much time on before, or just try a whole bunch of new things. You can definitely take inspiration from some of the other challenges out there but don’t let that constrain your imagination.

What are my reading resolutions? Well, as I noted above, I’m trying to read less books, with more intention. I might be a certified book glutton based on my last year’s experience and I think slowing down will improve the experience (and maybe my memory). Secondly, my intention is to read more French language materials – so if you have any recommendations I’m all ears. My reading level is only intermediate so things that are age appropriate and don’t require me to spend more of my time in a dictionary than reading to understand what is going on is ideal (the last book I started that I really enjoyed was Madame Victoria by Catherine Leroux.)

What about you? Reading resolutions you’ve taken on? Tips for my resolutions? Opinions on the resolution impulse?

 

Author Read-Alikes

Lately  I have been receiving many author read-alike requests from patrons. A useful tool for recommending read-alike authors is the Literature Map: the Tourist Map of Literature. The Literature Map is part of Gnod (Global network of discovery). It is based on Gnooks, Gnod’s literature recommendation system.

I really like how authors enjoyed by the same readers are grouped close together on the map, and the more often that they are recommended together, the closer they appear to each other. The map provides a wide variety of authors, and it is easy to see which authors are most similar and which are a little different. For example, I get many requests for read-alikes for Louise Penny.  Some of the closest authors on the map to Penny are Erin Hart, Elly Griffiths, and Charles Finch. These are  recommendations that work well and I am happy to recommend them to patrons.

However, it is also useful to note the authors that are placed a little farther away. Val McDermid, Laura Lippman and Maeve Binchy are not perfect matches, but they might be similar enough that the reader might consider them and be willing to try something new.

Another great tool (that I think we all probably use quite often) is NoveList. I love using NoveList for author read-alikes, mainly because I can access excellent printable lists. Why is this useful? Having something to hand to patrons is fantastic.  They have a list of potential great reads that they can explore at their leisure.

Here are some of the titles I have recommended for Louise Penny read-alikes:

sally4sally3sally2sally1

-Sally Gwyn, Fraser Valley Regional Library

 

 

 

 

 

Quick Reads

Enjoyable as it is to immerse your self in an inches-thick book, having the time and focus to do so is becoming somewhat of a luxury–especially during the busy holiday season. Here are a few excellent titles to recommend to patrons that will only take a short time to read.

vinegargirl

Vinegar Girl by the renowned author, Anne Tyler is a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s, “Taming of the Shrew”.  The story centers on Kate Battista, a preschool teaching assistant whose quirky personality always makes her presence known.  She is put to task when approached by her scientist father to help his lab assistant stay in the country by agreeing to marry him. The drama that ensues between all the characters is mixed with more humor and gentleness than the original version but still makes for a lively, interesting read!

ififorgetyou

Timothy Christopher Greene’s latest novel, If I Forget You, is a story of lost love. Twenty-one years after a love affair this memorable couple have parted; a chance encounter brings them back together.  Each has married, Margot still unhappily married and Henry, now divorced.  This love story is told in both past and present; each chapter brings a shift in time and delves into the different stages of a relationship. As the book evolves, each realizes that it is a love worth fighting for and one they do not want to lose again.  This novel confirms how the choices we make can change the path of our lives forever.

anotherbrooklyn

Jacqueline Woodson’s, Another Brooklyn is breathtaking! This unforgettable novel explores the beauty and hardship of girlhood in 1970’s Brooklyn. Woodson manages to bring four black girls, August, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi, and their separate home situations, to life in vivid color. The story follows their lives and struggles and the family conflicts that they all endure.  The friends share their hopes and fears and learn all about the complexities of youth, loss, friendship, family, race and religion.

fathersday

Father’s Day, by Simon Van Booy is a beautifully written book about a little girl named Harvey. Harvey becomes an orphan at the age of six following a car accident that took the lives of her parents. Harvey is put in the care of her father’s estranged older brother, Jason, who has more than his share of problems.  An ex-con and recovering alcoholic he is now suddenly thrown into the most important role of his life so far, that of a legal guardian to Harvey.  Together they negotiate the map of life building beautiful memories while learning the importance of family.

curiouscharmsof

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, by Phaedra Patrick is a fast read with unforgettable characters that move through grief and the process of starting over.  After forty years of marriage, Arthur’s wife dies unexpectedly.  On the first anniversary of her death he decides to clean out her belongings.  It is here he finds a gold charm bracelet full of charms.  He makes it his mission to trace his wife’s life through these charms.  It is amazing what he discovers not only about her but also about himself in the process.

-Caroline Wandell,  Fraser Valley Regional Library