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Around the Web with Jessica Zellers

*Originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of RA News.*

First Leonard Nimoy, then Terry Pratchett: this has been a difficult season for the nerds of the world -- though, as many obituaries for both men observed, you don't have to be a nerd to enjoy their work. Science and science fiction played second fiddle to the drama of the human experience in the original Star Trek series. Pratchett's Discworld books were satirical literary fiction novels that happened to have fantasy settings.

"Yes, he wrote fantasy and SF," observed Jo Fletcher of Jo Fletcher Books, "but so have Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro and Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin and untold numbers of wonderful, literary authors." And none of those writers, it is worth noting, are as prolific as Pratchett was. Very few people are.

"For library staff who work with the public, readers' advisory is often the best part of the job."

For the patrons and librarians who don't know where to start -- and I am talking to you, the person reading this, hello there -- NPR put together a great guide for diving into Discworld. In addition to making the series less intimidating to first-time readers, the piece is an example of excellent readers' advisory.

Pratchett, as George R. R. Martin said, "is survived by Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Mort, Death, Death of Rats, Commander Vimes, the Librarian, Cohen the Barbarian, Rincewind the Wizard, the Luggage, and hundreds of other unforgettable characters."

Hundreds of other nuanced characters, Martin could have said. Even in the early 80s, for instance. Pratchett wrote with a keen awareness of sexism. (Equal Rites). This is why you won't find him on lists such as this one, "What Women Want in Women Characters, or, Women Characters Redesigned by Women SFF Artists." I loved the character redesigns. Some of the artists downplay a character's sensuality while others celebrate it, but each is a big improvement on the original. "Thinking of a sexy woman as a subject instead of an object will make your art better," writes Lauren Panepinto, Creative Director of Orbit Books and Yen Press.Or, if you'd like to encounter women and girls whose creators made them strong in the first place, try any of these "29 Awesome Books with Strong Female Protagonists" from Buzzfeed.

On the flip side, we have individuals and institutions who trivialize books that empower women and girls. I was horrified to read Shannon Hale's blog post about schools that prevent boys from attending her talks. "I talk about books and writing, reading, rejections and moving through them, how to come up with story ideas," says Hale. "But because I'm a woman, because some of my books have pictures of girls on the cover, because some of my books have 'princess' in the title, I'm stamped as 'for girls only.'"

Hale goes on to describe an encounter with a third grade boy who confided that he wanted to finish reading The Princess in Black. He spoke to Hale in a whisper, having been too embarrassed to admit to it in front of his classmates -- or even in front of his teachers. Even at such a young age, he's learned to feel shame for liking a "girl" book.

This is unfortunate for several reasons, not the least of which is that children's favorite books are the ones they themselves select, according to the Kids & Family Reading Report by Scholastic. While this may seem obvious, many well-intentioned librarians are guilty of pushing books on readers, children as well as adults. For library staff who work with the public, readers' advisory is often the best part of the job. We want to connect readers with books they'll love, but sometimes we get too enthusiastic. Ultimately it is the children (and the teens, and the adults) who should be choosing what to read for pleasure.

At the moment, there are very few books to choose from in the tiny nation of Vanuatu. Tropical Cyclone Pam inflicted unthinkable destruction on the island nation, taking lives, destroying infrastructure, and generating a large-scale humanitarian crisis. While the top priorities must be food, water, medicine, and other essentials of life, the close runner-up is books; as this Christian Science Monitor article discusses, there is a growing recognition that books need to be a part of humanitarian aid in the wake of a disaster. Let it serve as a reminder of the importance of libraries everyone -- and if your own library has the resources to send books to Vanuatu, know that you'll be providing invaluable help to one of the poorest countries in the world.

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Jessica Zellers is a Collection Development Librarian with the Mid-Continent Public Library. She has a weakness for fat Russian novels.