book review: the number devil

The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure is an illustrated story about how weird numbers can be. A boy is tormented by a teacher who gives boring math problems in school and then is visited in his dreams by a number devil who introduces him to prime numbers, factorials, number pyramids and a host of other math concepts (but with different names, which would probably get confusing if you were trying to use this as a textbook).

The introductions are not at all in-depth; they mostly focus on how weird it is that numbers can do these things. So it’s probably a lousy textbook. And it’s not really much of a story either. What it is is a kind of children’s Socratic dialogue about numbers. No real explanations are given but intriguing hints about the depths to which you can explore Fibonacci sequences and the like litter the pages. It’s like a field of rabbit holes for someone to get intrigued by and then fall into by getting answers (such as they are) in other books.

book review: sir cumference and the viking’s map

I have a couple of friends who are getting their education degrees right now and one of them asked if I’d read any of these Sir Cumference books. I hadn’t, but now I have.

Sir Cumference and the Viking’s Map is a story that goes over the basics of the Cartesian plane. There are two kids who get a map that’s supposed to lead to treasure and they have to figure out how the coordinate system works, while being chased by enemies.

I like the concept but thought there weren’t enough plausible mistakes in it. They just read the clues and knew what the negative numbers meant and that you’re supposed to read the X axis first. There are probably sound pedagogical reasons for that, but it made it feel overly simplistic as a story. It felt too obviously like a lesson and not like a story you could happen to learn something from – for my taste at least.

Now I’m looking for more math/story books to see if I can find some I really like and will let you know if I find any.

book review: should we burn babar? essays on children’s literature and the power of stories

I read Should We Burn Babar? because I’m interested in the idea of radical children’s literature. Herbert R. Kohl’s book is a collection of essays that are about this but are also about radical education, which, I guess would be more interesting to me if I were a teacher than a librarian.

The first essay, on burning Babar, is very good at looking at the racist colonialist enterprise that Babar is enmeshed in and questioning how to read this book with kids, and if we even should. Kohl’s conclusion is that it can be read, but it must be done critically so the readers don’t get sucked into the idea that all the troublesome things that happen in the story (the bringing of European customs to the naked elephants who are left behind, the complete lack of agency that Celeste has in marrying Babar, the fact that symbols like Babar’s hat are bandied about as if they self-evidently mean something in regard to power).

There’s also an essay on Pinnochio, which was interesting because of its focus on how the real story doesn’t turn him into a good little boy. He remains mischievous and more human than Disney would have you believe.

Once the book got into educational methods and things I lost interest. He’s obviously an older guy and I wonder how much of what he discusses as radical has been incorporated into education curricula these days. I’d be interested to hear what people with more knowledge of that kind of thing have to say.

book review: disciplined minds

I read Jeff Schmidt’s book Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives because of a conversation between a bunch of newly-/almost-graduated librarchivists I know talking about the terrible job prospects in our chosen field. Now, a week from being done with my library schooling, the book was an interesting perspective what this training had prepared me for and how.

The big thesis of Disciplined Minds is that the main difference between a professional and a nonprofessional is that non-professionals are only allowed to do non-creative things, while professionals do the creative work. This is often why people engage in the paper chase for degrees; they want to be able to do the fulfilling interesting parts of the job, not just the rote mundane things. But creative people don’t necessarily do things that their superiors want them to do, which is why they need to be professionally trained; they need to be trusted that they won’t act against the system’s interests. The book talks about how professional training is designed to make professionals into reliable servants of the hierarchical system of society’s status quo.

These students scramble to figure out the rules of the game in their university graduate department or professional school, and then they literally compete to adjust themselves appropriately. Being not merely adjustable, but self-adjusting, they are good students in the eyes of the faculty. For the same reason they will be good professionals in the eyes of their employers. These students do not simply refrain from acts of insubordination, such as challenging the training institution’s agenda or criticizing the ways that agenda reflects the needs of the larger system. Rather, they enthusiastically embrace the system of professional qualification and defend the qualifying examination. The personal strategy of these skilled submissives is to play the game: to use the qualifying examination to demonstrate on the system’s terms that they are “good” (that is, well-adapted), to be certified with a credential and to get a job with a new set of rules to submit to. In short this means integrating themselves into the system, being dwarfed by it but surviving, if not as independent forces for change in society, then at least as well-fed biological entities serving the status quo.

Jeff Schmidt draws a lot of his examples from the world of physics academia, which is his background, and I have to say that the worlds he describes are much harsher than whatever I experienced in either of my professional degrees (neither of which had certification/qualifying exams like passing the bar or whatever). But it’s still there. The first term core is really crappy at our school, filled with busy-work that serves little purpose but to ensure that you’re capable of following orders and engaging in alienated labour (work that you feel no connection to).

And then there’s the job hunt. Trying to convince people that you will be a good employee is a recipe for soul-crushing. From the book:

It is vital to the system that the losers serve the hierarchy respectfully, and not sabotage it, when they find themselves with jobs that have lower social status than the society of “unlimited opportunity” had led them to expect… Those who say “That’s life” should understand that there is nothing natural about a system that kills the spirit of large numbers of people by first putting them in a position where they need opportunity, then promising them virtually unlimited opportunity and finally making them losers.

That about sums up what it’s like looking for a library job in the current system.

I’d like to think that in general librarians are different than the professionals Schmidt describes, but I can see how we are inculcated with certain values that will help us be good workers in systems, not necessarily good individual thinkers. Librarchivism does seem to have a better focus on its social benefit to society than Physics though. And the hum of free-speech and preserving institutional memory ideals in the background does influence how we’re taught. I have friends who are beginning their training to become teachers this fall, and I’m really interested to see how their professional training experiences match up to mine (and each others’ since they’re going to different universities).

The final section of Schmidt’s book is about how to be a radical professional, and the emphasis there is on identifying as a challenger of the status quo first, not as a professional. This means having solidarity with non-professionals and challenging for what is better for society and the people we serve than our bosses. I like to think that’s part of librarianship anyway, but am not completely naïve. I’m glad I have colleagues who are more radical than me to challenge me to not just get swept up in politics as usual as I try to be an employed librarian.

All in all, a fascinating book. I’d love to see a more contemporary book like this (which is from 2000) written in the smaller-scale Canadian system.

book review: the magician king

The Magician King is the sequel to Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. There were parts of this one that I liked better than the first, and things that weren’t as good, but the biggest difference is that there’s no Harry Potter school stuff in this book.

The story starts with Quentin as one of the royals (with his magician friends) of the magical land of Fillory. He’s a little bored and goes off on a quest to be a hero. A bit of that seemed like a step back from where he got to by the end of the first book. The action takes him to Earth again, and he learns how little he knows about everything. Parallel to that is Julia’s school of hard magical knocks story of how she became a magician (she didn’t go to Brakebills, the school in the first book).

Overall it’s a good book and the ending is more satisfying than the end to the first one. I’d gladly suggest this for a mature YA audience.

currently in use

penultimate semester complete

I am perilously close to being done my library-student career and getting back to full-on librarianhood (I’m of the opinion that being a librarian isn’t contingent on having a specific degree, but YMMV).

Today I handed in my last paper of the term. It was a really fun one to write because I incorporated analysis of children’s literature and its repressive/educative nature and the kind of books that fight that sort of thing. It’s probably a little more polemical than it strictly needed to be, but I prefer writing with something to defend. I’ll be presenting this paper (after I get it back and incorporate Judi’s edits) at the Stranger in a Strange Land Children’s Literature Conference in a couple of weeks.

I had a very good semester. My courses were fun and informative (even the management course). I have heaps of classic Children’s Literature bibliographies to be working from when I’m in Children’s Departments. My class on Youth Services was supremely interesting and I feel I got a lot of background to dealing with Young Adults, and maybe more importantly learned who to be reading in the professional literature to do a good job working in that kind of role in the future. Also, I got to make my book trailer, which A.S. King linked to on her blog, so that’s a few kinds of cool.

The other thing I did today was go to a talk on Youth Community Informatics by Bertram Chip Bruce. It was an interesting talk about education being difficult to study as part of a community, even though it’s integral to community. Community informatics got some cautionary notes about how putting the technology first can ignore the critical dialogues that need to be taking place in a democracy. They did some interesting projects like helping with Community Asset Mapping for a Chicago neighbourhood that cab-drivers won’t take you to. But my favourite takeaway from the talk was this idea of Community as Curriculum, which states that people need to:

  1. learn about the world in a connected way
  2. learn how to act responsibly in the world
  3. learn how to transform the world – to give back to the community

I don’t think of myself as an educator or anything, but that’s the kind of thing I can see myself being a part of in the library world. I’ve decided that YA services are probably where I want to be working, which is a good thing to have figured out as I start looking for jobs. I’m planning on using skills I learned in my cataloguing, instructional role and social media courses, and I’m definitely not sorry I went to Australia and got some Systems Librarian experience, but YA services feel like they’re where I’d do my best work, and actually be helping to transform the world. Maybe not as much as a teacher, but in a role much more suited to me.

And there we go, my reflections on my semester. I have two-and-a-third more courses to finish by the end of August. Hopefully I’ll be able to find work for when I’m done.

book review: akata witch

Akata Witch is Nnedi Okorafor’s novel set in contemporary small-town Nigeria. It was nominated for a 2011 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Book (one of the Nebula Awards).

Sunny, the young heroine, is an albino girl with a couple of brothers who’ve moved around a lot in their lifetimes. They’ve lived in the US and visited Europe but now they’re back in Nigeria. Where Sunny learns she’s a Leopard-person.

Leopard people are people in tune with magic and spirits and their true faces. Most leopard people are brought up by parents who are leopard people, but there are also some who are free agents, which is what happens to Sunny (her parents are Lambs – the equivalent of Muggles). As soon as she learns what she is, she’s bound to secrecy about it by her new Leopard peers and teachers.

It’s a good book, but way more interesting for the characters and setting than the plot. There’s a serial killer in their area and Sunny and her friends have to put an end to his nefariousness, but that only really becomes important in the last sixth of the book. Most of the book is about Sunny learning about this strange new world she’s found herself a part of. There’s a soccer match, and they watch a juju fight between experienced warriors, and they undergo a bunch of trials in which the protagonists could have died, but the difference in the stakes between those things never really come through. Even though Sunny is shocked at what the adults could have let happen, it’s hard to be really pulled into what turns into the big conflict. Too much time is spent with Sunny wanting things explained to her, but the rest of the characters feel it’s better to keep her (and the reader) in the dark.

But Sunny is a great character. The worldbuilding (of both the fantastical world and mundane Nigeria) is excellent. I loved the different languages that were used and how the cultures were differentiated. I loved that leopard people are supposed to shun worldly goods and power, but some of them don’t, but everyone has to deal with each other anyway. The politics around everything are nicely gray.

I’d gladly recommend the book for anyone who likes urban fantasy type things, but wants to see some characters and cultures that aren’t already filling the bookshelves.