Friday, July 29, 2011

There Once Was A Boy Named Harry

You probably know that the final installment in the acclaimed Harry Potter film series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2, was released two weeks ago to record-smashing acclaim. Two weeks in, Deathly Hallows 2 has already had the biggest midnight opening of all time ($43.5 million from the opening midnight launch alone), earned the highest-grossing opening weekend ever, and hit the $900 million mark in worldwide box office returns faster than any movie in history.

As impressive as the numbers are, it shouldn't overshadow what may be the true accomplishment of the Harry Potter movie franchise -- a ten-year series of films featuring the same trio of young actors who literally grew up in front of our eyes. Few film series feature eight installments; fewer still manage to deliver a compelling, emotional story in their final chapters that don't leave the audience feeling the franchise has worn out its welcome. There's a reason the Potter stories aren't just popular, but rather are a true worldwide phenomenon -- there is undoubtably something special about them.

Only two weeks out in theaters, Deathly Hallows 2 is sure to be playing for quite some time, and won't be released to DVD for months. But while we're waiting, let's take a look back at what has led up to this final film: a movie series a decade in the making.

(Or, if you're pressed for time, feel free to check out one musically-gifted teen's sung version of all seven stories ... in 99 seconds. Definitely worth a watch!)

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" [2001] -- Directed by Chris Columbus, this movie is still touted as a favorite entry in the series by many a Potter fan. Columbus faithfully renders the story and world from the book onto the big screen, telling the already-beloved story of the bespectacled boy who finds out he's really a wizard. This is, first and foremost, an origin story, and Columbus allows the movie to open naturally and deliberately, which lets us feel as amazed as Harry himself at the unfolding story. While the film has its weak points (the special effects looked dated even back in 2001), you can't ask for much more in a first-story book-to-film adaptation than this.

"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" [2002]

Director Chris Columbus continued the tradition he'd begun in the first film of creating film adaptations that were faithful to the original source material. Indeed, it became perhaps a bit too faithful: clocking in at 161 minutes, it's the longest film in the series, despite being developed from one of the shortest books. Nearly every plot detail from the book is preserved, making this an enjoyable experience for book purists but dragging a bit for the average movie-goer. Still, it's a pleasure to fall back into the "groove" of Hogwarts now that the origin story of the first film is past. And there are some wonderful performances, in particular Jason Isaacs as blonde bad-guy Lucius Malfoy, Shirley Henderson as the ghost-girl Moaning Myrtle, and Richard Harris in his final performance as Headmaster Albus Dumbledore.

"Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" [2004]

New director Alfonso Cuarón takes the Harry Potter series in a new direction for this third installment, giving us signs that both the child actors and the film series as a whole are growing up. This was the first film to really break away from the by-the-numbers book-to-film transition that Columbus had diligently employed in the first two movies. And, indeed -- now that the world of Harry Potter had been so well established by Columbus, it became more feasible to shake up the movie translations of the source material. What results is a weird, wonderful little movie that is perhaps the most self-contained entry in the series: Voldemort isn't the bad guy this time around, which gives the story a chance to stand completely on its own merits. With the introduction of a real "family" member for Harry, there's also a surprising amount of emotion, as for the first time we're presented with a story exploring Harry's past. This is easily my favorite film of the bunch (with the possible exception of the final entry).

"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" [2005]

As Potter's first British director, Mike Newell enters in to continue the trend begun by Cuarón in pushing for a darker mood for the story, as well as taking more liberties with the source material than Columbus had. Many Potter fans are divided in their opinions on Goblet of Fire (as well as on Prisoner of Azkaban, for that matter), as book storylines are removed and whole characters are excised. The payoff is a story that, again like Azkaban, has more time to focus on prevailing storylines of Harry's struggles in the wizarding world and the build-up to the return of the primary bad guy of the series: Lord Voldemort. This movie is famous for also being the first to feature the death of a semi-major character, setting the stage for the upcoming battles -- and losses -- to come.

"Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" [2007]

David Yates becomes the fourth and final director to come into the Harry Potter series; he will remain on board through the final three films. Voldemort has finally and properly returned, so it's no surprise that this film is among the darkest in the series, with a struggling Harry fighting to deal with pressures both inside and out: Voldemort's return, the wizarding world's prevailing belief that Harry cannot be trusted, and Harry's own teenaged self-doubt in his friends and himself. New characters are introduced, familiar characters are lost (continuing the trend of Goblet of Fire, a major character is killed during the big battle), and Harry is left reeling from a particularly poignant loss. And yet the film seems to lack something, perhaps due to the temporary replacement of screenwriter Steve Kloves with Michael Goldenberg. Being the longest book in the series, Order of the Phoenix was always going to have to be pared down; but despite grounding the story primarily in Harry's emotional arc, the emotional response for the audience seems to be lacking. Being my favorite book of the series, I was disappointed not to better enjoy the film adaptation.

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" [2009]

Dealing in large part with the backstory of Voldemort's rise to power, Half-Blood Prince must have been difficult to adapt for film. Yet screenwriter Kloves returns to meet the challenge, writing a script that finds a surprisingly graceful balance between dark secrets being revealed and some truly light-hearted comedy about the imperiling journey through the teen years. During its comedic scenes, Half-Blood Prince is an amazingly funny movie, allowing its teen characters to, for a little while, just be teens. Meanwhile, the large strokes of Voldemort's backstory are brought into the story without slowing down the plot so completely as to lose the audience's interest. A word of caution, however: while a growing problem since the third film, Half-Blood Prince is the movie where a reading of the book becomes essential if you want to completely understand the ins and outs of the plot. This movie also features another heart-rending character death, although if you've ever seen Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, you already know it's coming.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 1 [2010]

The filmmakers chose to split the final book installment of the Potter series into two films -- for preserving artistic merit or for the cash, your call. (I suspect different motives for different people involved in the process.) With the Final Battle off in the wings waiting for Part 2, this movie can't help but be heavy on set-up, reestablishing Harry and friends' quest for the Horcruxes (see Half-Blood Prince for more) and introducing the Deathly Hallows (three mystical objects with the power to make their owner "the Master of Death"). That doesn't stop the film from presenting us with plenty of action -- including several mini-battle sequences and a rip-roaring aerial chase across London -- and even some light moments of humor. ("Right. Perspective.") And if you've grown as attached to these characters as much as I have over the last decade, your heart will be in your mouth by the ending sequence -- which is just the ticket to get you geared up for Part Two.

-- Post by Ms. B

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

At the Movies

For being a summer full of expected blockbuster hits, the box office returns have been somewhat subdued this season. Except, of course, for some notable exceptions -- like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which is only the eighth movie of all time to cross the billion dollar mark at the worldwide box office. And of course there's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which drew in nearly $170 million in the U.S. alone just in its opening weekend (setting a new record for biggest opening weekend ever).

It's made for a strange summer of huge hits and big misses (anybody go see Green Lantern? I didn't think so). But even if this latest offering of blockbuster hopefuls isn't your cup of tea, the summer season can still be a great time to explore the world of cinema. We've got a fabulous, ever-growing DVD collection at MPL (check out some of our latest additions here) -- and we've also got some great materials on the culture and people of the motion picture industry. From directors and producers' interviews and memoirs, to genre critiques and movie reviews, there's lots of great ways to take a behind-the-scenes look at the making of motion pictures.

So if you consider yourself a movie buff or cinephile, check out these DVDs and great reads on the production, history, and culture of the movies. Enjoy the show!



-- Post by Ms. B

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Stitches in Time

One of our ongoing projects at MPL is our continual efforts to make our Library open, bright, engaging, and -- above all -- welcoming. And when it comes to the latter, our beautiful new Library Quilt goes a long way towards achieving just that.

For a long time, our Library displayed a wall hanging by the staircase leading down to the children's room. The hanging had been especially handmade by the mother of Kathy Kennedy, Ms. Kennedy being a former director of the Library. But over the years, the hanging had been damaged with water stains, and unfortunately it was not possible to have to repaired.

In 2007, Christy Fusco (our current director) asked Carol Olson (a library clerk) for help. Carol is a member of the Quilt Company East Quilting Guild, as well as being a member of the Appliqué Mini-Group within the Guild. Carol suggested speaking with her group to see if its members might be interested in creating a new library quilt.

The appliqué group was interested and immediately began planning the new library quilt. Carol suggested a combination of two patterns -- one titled "Getting in a Good Book" (which featured the dragon and wizard design seen above) and the other featuring a row of school children reading books. In order to make the quilt truly unique, it was decided that each "reader" character that was created would be personalized in some special way by the quilters.

The finished product features 21 individual "blocks," each one featuring a hand-sewn picture of a person reading a book. Each character was specially designed by the person who created it and represents something in each member's life. Geri B. made two blocks representing her parents' history, while Karen W. created one to honor breast cancer awareness. And one very special square features a hand-embroidered memorial to former Library director Kathy Kennedy -- as well as to her mother, Vivian Kennedy, who had created the original Library wall hanging that was being replaced.

The centerpiece of the quilt features 448 two-and-a-half inch squares in a checkerboard pattern, surrounding the hand-stitched dragon and wizard (the centerpiece was created by Carol and Lorrie M.).

The completed quilt makes for a positively beautiful tapestry that will be sure to hang in the Library for many years to come.

The Guild has been meeting at the Library for years. "The Library has been a great tool for the Guild in general," says Carol. "We have many different groups within the Guild, and the Library's been a great place for all of them to meet. We wanted to show our appreciation for being able to use the Library on a continual basis."

The specialized blocks are naturally a particularly personal touch to the quilt. "The members of the group eagerly took on the challenge of creating the quilt," Carol adds. "Not only did we have fun making it, but I believe our creativity and excitement shows in our blocks."

For the Library staff's part, our deepest thanks go out to the members of the Appliqué Mini-Group who worked so hard to create this beautiful gift: Denise D., Lorrie M., our own Carol Olson, Celeste M., Geri B., Kay R., Karen W., Donna P., Pat van D., LuAnn U., Sally G., and Janet S. We also want to especially acknowledge group member Sharon K., who also contributed to the quilt and passed away before its completion. Our deep thanks and appreciation to all of these ladies for their time, effort, and library love!

The quilt will be formally dedicated to Monroeville Public Library on Monday, July 18, 2011, at 10:00 A.M. in the Library. We hope you'll join us there.

-- Post by Ms. B

Friday, July 8, 2011

Not Just For Teens: The "All Ages" Reading Phenomenon

Most young adult librarians will tell you that young adult literature is a comparatively modern genre. Now, it's certainly arguable as to exactly when novels written with a teen audience in mind first started to appear. Are Dickens's Oliver Twist and Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer the first real books for young adults? Or should we count the beginning of the "teen literature golden age" as the 50s and 60s, when The Catcher in the Rye and The Outsiders were published? Others might argue that it wasn't until the 70s and 80s -- when authors such as Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, Robert Newton Peck, and Madeleine L'Engle gained mainstream popularity -- that young adult fiction really took off.

But regardless of when you decide teen literature became a mainstream genre, there's no denying that we're in something of a teen lit renaissance at the moment. Much of this burst of popularity is due in no small part to J.K. Rowling, who published her first Harry Potter book in Great Britain in 1997 (the book would make its stateside debut in 1998), and whose famous series would, over the years, grow from best-selling children's book series to worldwide phenomenon.

Harry would pave the way for other, explosively popular teen novels -- Percy Jackson, The Hunger Games, Maximum Ride, and Twilight, the latter of which ushered in a plethora of teen paranormal romance fiction (House of Night, City of Bones, the Shiver series, and Hush, Hush, to name but a few). If the 70s and 80s were the Golden Age of young adult fiction, we're clearly in the Silver Age now.

But if Harry Potter and the Twilight series opened the door to a new generation of teen literature, it also opened the door to another new phenomenon: adults reading books "intended" for kids.

In some ways, this isn't really a new phenomenon at all. Adults have been reading stories with teenage protagonists for years: Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer, and Holden Caulfield just for starters. But those books weren't considered "young adult literature" the way the Harry Potter books are today; even The Catcher in the Rye, with its quintessential teen protagonist, was originally marketed to adults. Harry and Twilight were considered "children's" books from the start -- and yet a substantial part of their readership is made up of adult readers.

And it's not to say that this is simply a matter of adults reading their children's books. Enough adults are purchasing teen books for themselves that they constitute a complete audience for these books in and of themselves. "Adult" editions of the Harry Potter books were published in Great Britain (the idea being that grown-ups might be too embarrassed to be seen in public reading a children's novel, so sophisticated new covers were given to the books to leave them looking more "mature"). Grown-up fans of the Twilight series can join groups like Twilight Moms, clubs devoted to adult members of Stephenie Meyer's vampire series. And you'd be surprised how many adults confess (because it is usually a sheepishly-admitted confession) to being big fans of Percy Jackson or The Hunger Games.

The opinions for why grown-ups are suddenly devouring kid lit vary with each person you ask. Some people will tell you that adults are tired of heavier, serious fare and are looking for the light escapism that young adult lit brings you. Other people (fans of The Hunger Games, for instance) are quick to point out that there's nothing inherently "light" about the entire teen lit genre -- there are plenty of teen books that deal with heavy issues and high stakes -- and that adult readers love them for exactly that reason.

As for me, I suspect both theories are right. Even if I weren't the Teen Services Librarian here at MPL, I'd still have a deep affection for many of today's most popular young adult novels. I can tell you that the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books are indeed a lot of escapist fun: who doesn't enjoy reading a fast-paced, funny, high-rise adventure about wizards and demigods, mysteries and quests, monsters and magic?

And yet these books -- like much of young adult literature -- aren't simply brain candy. I think the other reason so many adults are picking up today's teen books is because most of these stories are telling a universal tale, one that readers find appealing regardless of their age. Young adult books, perhaps more than any other genre, tell and retell the archetypal tale of the Hero's Journey, the story of a hero undertaking a quest and facing trials and obstacles before transforming into a truer version of themselves. Although many people refer to these as "coming-of-age tales," there's no denying that this most elemental of stories is one that everybody can relate to -- no matter how young or old. Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Lyra Belacqua, Meg Murray -- they all star in their own fantastical adventure series, but their stories are as much about determination, courage, and sacrifice as they are about flying cars and golden compasses.

Young Adult Literature today is smart, fun, and can make for a great read for anyone, teenager or adult. And its stories are also about something, which makes it a satisfying read on more than one level. So the next time you stop by the Library, be sure to check out our Teen Collection.

I'd be happy to recommend some of my favorite titles to you.

-- Post by Ms. B

Friday, July 1, 2011

Self-Checkout Your Books @ MPL

Our newest feature at MPL -- Self-Checkout!

We're always looking for ways to make your visits to the Library more simple, easy, and convenient. The addition of the self-checkout option to our Front Desk services (and it is an addition, not a replacement) is our way of continuing to do just that!

Located in our cafe area beside the Front Desk, our new self-checkout station features everything you'll need to check out your own books, DVDs, CDs, magazines, graphic novels, games, and more. Simply use the scanner to the left of the monitor to scan in your library card barcode number, then scan the barcodes on each of the items you're checking out. Run each item over the flat silver desensitizer (this will keep you from "beeping" on your way out the door!) and you're good to go!

Not sure how to get started?  Be sure to flag down a library staff member to help you through the process. Or, when you get to the Front Desk to check out, let us know that you're interested in learning to use the self-checkout. We'll be happy to help you!

We've still got two checkout stations, manned by staff members, at our Front Desk. But we welcome you to try out our self checkout station. Let us know what you think!