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October Favorite: Lizard Radio October 29, 2015

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lizardI have read nearly 365 books this year, the majority by women and nearly half by or about people of color. In the last month or so, I’ve read most of the books on the National Book Award long list (except for Gary Paulsen’s book, which didn’t sound that interesting and Walk on Earth a Stranger because in general I am suspicious of Westerns), quite a few picture books and more non-fiction than fiction. I’d say in the last couple years I’ve read far fewer dystopian YA novels and often avoided them because so many were similar, but Lizard Radio by Pat Schmatz was definitely a favorite read this month.

Set in a world where gender rules are strict and people who don’t adhere to them must undergo retraining, the book focuses on Kivali, a fifteen year old ‘bender’ or genderqueer character. Kivali isn’t quite sure who she is–is she male or female? Is she human or lizard, like her guardian teases her about? The book opens as she is sent to CropCamp, an agricultural training course that is supposed to help her transition into a useful citizen. While Kivali makes many friends and even falls in love, there is danger lurking and she must solve the mystery of where the camp director’s loyalties lie.

Some people found the opening of Lizard Radio too slow, but for me it was just the right pace. Very little of the structure of the society was explained directly, forcing me to put together clues to figure out what kind of a world I was reading about. Kivali was an easy character to root for and the side characters were individual and engaging as well. The language (bender, regs, pie) kind of reminded me of Australian YA fiction for some reason, though I don’t really know why. I LOVED how the book included a non-binary protagonist while still remaining very much a mystery/adventure/dystopian novel rather than solely a coming-out story. The camp rules and gender regulations are close enough to our own world that I hope this book will make other readers question our society’s focus on gender and think more about what it means to be non-binary in our world.

Books for Kids Who Love Hamilton October 26, 2015

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This fall, the musical HAMILTON by Lin-Manuel Miranda has become the ear worm of choice for many people, even those who don’t normally listen to musical theater. Children are definitely included; on Twitter especially, you can find plenty of video clips and photos of kids  singing along to ‘The Schuyler Sisters’ or drawing comic strips of their favorite songs.

aaronSo if you have a kid who loves Hamilton and they want to know more about the history behind the show, what should they read? While older readers may happily dig into Ron Chernow’s biography that inspired Miranda, most younger kids will find an 800 page book a bit intimidating. Alexander Hamilton has not been given nearly as much shelf space as some of the other Founding Fathers, but here are four books for kids that will hopefully add to their delight in the musical.

duel2For readers in the 5-7 age range, Duel! Burr and Hamilton’s Deadly War of Words by Dennis Brindell Fradin (out of print, but available online), and the newly published Aaron and Alexander by Don Brown are good picture book biographies. Both can be read aloud and have dramatic watercolor illustrations, Brown’s in a slightly more cartoon style, with many side by side panels. Revolutionary war battles such as the Battle of Monmouth and experiences like working for George Washington will be familiar to fans of the musical. Brown ends his book with Burr’s quote (sung in the musical) “I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.” Both authors include a bibliography and a short author’s note that includes information about dueling in America and it’s history.

duelFor older readers Alexander Hamilton: The Outsider by Jean Fritz and The Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr by Judith St. George are excellent biographies that add details to the events of the musical. St. George’s book is shorter, at 89 pages a good length for readers in elementary school, while Fritz’s longer text works for 9-12 year olds. St. George has a few lines that unintentionally echo the musical in amusing ways (she writes “If Hamilton and Burr shared one trait, it was their love for the ladies.”) and she expands on lots of small moments that are mentioned briefly in the play, such as Burr’s difficult relationship with Washington and his courtship of Theodosia. Because her book is a dual biography, it includes an epilogue about Burr’s later life, as well as a full bibliography and index.

alexFritz, who won a Newbery honor for Homesick: My Own Story, has the most detailed re-telling of Hamilton’s story. All of the major plot points of the musical are recounted here, and Hercules Mulligan, John Laurens and Lafayette all make an appearance. Fritz even includes a small reference to Angelica Schuyler, a major figure in the musical who doesn’t show up in any other book about Hamilton for young readers. Hamilton’s work as a statesman is explained thoughtfully, with clear examples of how his views differed from people like Thomas Jefferson. Moments that did not end up in the musical, such as Benedict Arnold’s betrayal and Hamilton’s leadership during the Whiskey Rebellion are also given space here and add to the reader’s understanding of Hamilton’s life. At the end of the book is a set of notes explaining some vocabulary and giving extra information about events and people, as well as a bibliography and index. At the end of the musical, the cast sings “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” and all four of these authors have done an excellent job telling Hamilton’s story.

September Favorite: Funny Bones September 30, 2015

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bonesBy rights, this should probably be my October pick, but I read it in September, so here it is a month early! I love all of Duncan Tonatiuh’s work and I was lucky enough to meet him at a picture book panel a year and a half ago. His new book Funny Bones: Posada and his Day of the Dead Calaveras hits all of my sweet spots–picture book, art, Mexican history–just like his biography of Diego Rivera did, only this time his subject is an almost complete unknown.

Few people in the United States could probably name Jose Guadelupe Posada as the artist of the iconic Day of the Dead calaveras, even if they have t-shirts and handbags and wall art with the colorful drawings. I know I certainly couldn’t, until reading this fantastic book. Tonatiuh tells Posada’s life story simply, while still giving background information on events such as the Mexican Revolution for context. The pages with a breakdown of the three distinct artistic processes that Posada used (lithography, engraving and etching) are especially helpful in visualizing exactly what the artist needed to do in order to complete the work.

Tonatiuh’s signature profile figures, inspired by Mexican codex imagery fit nicely alongside Posada’s black and white skeletons. The full page reproductions of famous skeleton art alongside a question about what message Posada was communicating with his art push readers to consider the goals of the artist. A detailed author’s note, glossary and bibliography are essential for those looking for further information. For readers interested in art, history, and Latino culture, don’t miss this book!

August Favorite: To Catch a Cheat August 27, 2015

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cheatIt’s nearly the end of August and I’ve read 272 books so far this year. I haven’t added quite as many titles these past couple of weeks due to travel, but there are still a few library books waiting for me when I get home from this latest trip and of course a giant TBR list if it ever looks like the shelves are getting empty. I was lucky enough to score several high profile ARCs this month, but none made me quite so giddy as To Catch a Cheat, the sequel to The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson. I learned about Johnson’s work last year thanks to the We Need Diverse Books campaign and quickly fell in love with his characters. I made it my mission to make sure we were selling every single copy of The Great Greene Heist as fast as it came into the store. 

I am happy to say that the sequel delivers on every level, from complex, technologically savvy break-in plans, to sweet middle school romance, to laugh-out-loud kid dialogue. In this caper, Jackson Greene and his crew are being blackmailed with a fake video that shows them flooding the school. Their only chance to get ahold of it before the principal is to steal a set of test answers. With more setbacks, complicated movements and tons of computer genius from Megan and Hashemi (who I really want to get their own book now) it will have you laughing and frantically turning pages all the way until the end. Gabi is still my favorite middle school character of all time, though I have a soft spot in my heart for the artistic exploits of Bradley Boardman. I hope that Johnson keeps writing Jackson Greene books, because I know I will read every single one.

July Favorite: The Tightrope Walkers July 25, 2015

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tightropeOver halfway through the year and I’ve read more than 250 books (including picture books). This month in particular, I’ve had a great run of new YA titles to read, with diverse protagonists, great prose and fascinating insights into friendship, relationships and growing up. Not for the first time, I’ve been a little sad these weren’t around when I was a teen; I wonder how they would have affected my sense of self and the way I interacted with others.

I’ve read three different titles by British heavyweight author David Almond lately and while I’ve really enjoyed all of them, The Tightrope Walkers stood out for its characters, setting and prose. Set in the north of England, it follows Dominic as he grows up in estate housing with a shipyard worker father and a best friend who is an artist. Like Mal Peet’s Life: an Exploded Diagram it explores the tensions between the generations, class divisions in Britain in the 50’s and 60’s; the growth of counterculture and the ways we use art both to escape our lives and to explore them.

Almond has been lauded for awhile now in both Britain and the US, winning a Printz award for his book Kit’s Wilderness and a Hans Christian Andersen award for his body of work. His books range from fantastical middle grade fiction (Skellig) to myth like picture books (Mouse Bird Snake Wolf) to the experimental YA (The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean as telt by hisself) I highly recommend his work to everyone interested in quality YA and children’s literature.

June Favorite: The Marvels July 4, 2015

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How is it halfway through the year already? I have read 221 books so far this year and 112 of them have been by or about people of color, which means I am on track with my goal. My reading is still skewed heavily towards female writers except in the genre of picture books. I’ve been reading a few more adult books this year, mostly thanks to Twitter and BookRiot, which actually make them sound interesting. I’m still working on including books with LGBTQIA main characters, which brings me to my pick for a favorite in June: The Marvels by Brian Selznick.

marvelsSelznick doesn’t really need any introduction. His book The Invention of Hugo Cabret won a Caldecott, was turned into a highly acclaimed movie and taught many people, including myself, the history of automata. The follow up book, Wonderstruck, expanded on the unique combination of images and words he invented for Hugo. Both works involve mystery, parallel or connected stories of individual children, and the theme of a family chosen. These books also speak to strong inspirations from history and the real world and a sense of curiosity and love of story. The Marvels is no different.

Inspired by theater and a unique museum in London, The Marvels begins with a tale told in images, of a theatrical family living in London in the 17oo’s and of how each successive generation makes it’s mark on the stage. We are left with a tragic event and the narrative shifts into text and the story of Joseph, who has run away from his boarding school in order to find his uncle and hopefully, his best friend. In many ways, this is a classic tale of a virtual orphan convincing family to take them in (I was reminded of the Tillerman cycle by Cynthia Voigt) but the house where Joseph’s uncle lives and the connection to the earlier story about the family makes the book unique.

So much in this book felt like it was speaking directly to me. The idea of holding onto the past, the magic of inventing stories and how theater creates connections between people was all profoundly moving. I can’t wait for everyone to read and laugh and cry and be moved by this book. I’m so glad that Mr. Selznick shared it with us.

May Favorite: Drum Dream Girl June 18, 2015

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Better late than never, right? Travels in May meant that I got a little behind on writing about what I was reading. This picture book, however, has stuck with me, in my head and my heart and I’m so happy to talk about it here.

drumDrum Dream Girl, by Margarita Engle, tells the story of Millo, who lives in Cuba and longs to play the drums. But drums are only for boys and men, so that means she dreams and practices in secret before finally finding a teacher and joining her sisters’ band. Millo is based on a real person, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, who is credited with helping change the stigma against women playing drums in mid-twentieth century Cuba. The illustrations, by Rafael Lopez are vibrant and colorful, with movement that sometimes has the reader turning the entire book on end to try and contain the life and excitement of the drawings.

This book made me want to learn more about Millo and the history of her all female band in Cuba. It made me want to go back to Cuba and listen to drummers and appreciate their music. This is a fantastic book to pair with Sweethearts of Rhythm or another picture book about female jazz musicians and women of color during the swing era in the US. The poetry of the words in this piece makes it a great read aloud and hopefully it will inspire young readers to try making music, visual art or writing their own stories about their dreams.

April Favorite(s): Lenny and Lucy, Waiting April 26, 2015

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The days are growing longer, and publishers are sending boxes and boxes of new books that are coming in the fall! Since I don’t want to think about cold weather coming back, lets just focus on all the new books, shall we?

I’ve read more than 150 books so far this year and I’m maintaining my 50% by or about POC goal. This goal has pushed me to read books by authors I’ve heard about before, like Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, as well as new titles by authors I’m not familiar with, like Sofia Quintero’s Show and Prove. I’ve been reading a few more adult books than normal, completing Pulitzer winner All the Light We Cannot See in addition to speculative fiction A Darker Shade of Magic and The Just City. The two favorite titles I’m going to talk about this month, however, are both picture books, due out later in the summer and fall by Caldecott medalists Kevin Henkes and Erin Stead.

Waiting, by Kevin Henkes, uses a cheerful pastel palette to introduce the reader to a series of toys sitting on the windowsill. This book pushes all of my puppeteer, I-like-making-objects-talk buttons and hearkens back to many of my childhood favorites about what dolls and other toys think about when humans aren’t in the room. It’s a quiet book, a thoughtful book, a book that rewards careful re-reading of the pictures and not just the words. I fell in love immediately, and I think you will too.

Lenny and Lucy, by Philip Stead with pictures by Erin Stead, is the first new book from this champion team in three years and it is well worth the wait. That said, it was NOTHING like what I was expecting. I had seen the cover on Twitter, of a boy and a dog and so I assumed the dog Lucy and the boy was Lenny and this was a friendship story. Not so. Lenny and Lucy are neither the boy nor the dog and the story is one of home and fears and changes. It is also about the power of imagination and our ability to create. The pictures are stunning and I know this is going to be a new favorite for many, many people. I can hardly wait to share it!

Battle of the Books: Second Round March 27, 2015

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Oh the sadness, as books are judged and set aside! However, this round featured stellar decisions from both Elizabeth Wein and Alaya Dawn Johnson, so I am happy. I was thrilled that both El Deafo and Brown Girl Dreaming made it through, though I am not thrilled that they now must face each other. Can’t we just declare a tie right now?

I love how Jason Reynolds commented that there is probably a flag with Jackie Woodson’s face on the moon (if there isn’t, there should be!) and that she “…could’ve thrown a fire-breathing chipmunk in there and it would’ve worked” (I also agree, though it’s a little hard to picture).

I probably laughed the hardest at Elizabeth Wein’s line about using her “…skills as an unreliable narrator” which everyone who has read Code Name Verity knows are CONSIDERABLE. She is right that many judges start with the book that they are going to cut and what fun to see her do the opposite with her decision! I still need to read Madman of Piney Woods. I really enjoyed Alaya Dawn Johnson’s reasoning behind her decision, even if I kind of was hoping for a graphic novel match up between El Deafo and This One Summer. 

Now no matter who wins the next round, I’m in for some serious disappointment when either Brown Girl Dreaming or El Deafo have to leave. Hopefully the Undead Poll will solve all quandaries.

March Favorite: Goodbye Stranger March 23, 2015

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strangerHow is it March already? Three months into the year and I have read 95 books. I’m sticking pretty close to my 50% by or about POC goal, though I see that I haven’t read much with LGBTQ characters lately. I need to work on that! I also need to read more poetry, especially as April approaches.

My favorite for March has to be Rebecca Stead’s latest book, coming in August, which is called Goodbye Stranger. A story of friendship, growing up, and feminism, it has the same New York City setting as her previous books, but with slightly older protagonists and themes. This is a book I really wish had been around when I was in middle school–it would have given me a mirror to reassure me that I wasn’t so weird after all. It’s a great example of a book that makes it hard for me to figure out which I like more: the universal themes or the tiny specific details that remind me of my own adolescence.

I also had a tendency to eat lunch in out of the way corners like the theater and started participating in the theater both onstage and backstage in middle school. I had causes that I was passionate about (in the book, it’s feminism, for me it was pacifism) and drove my friends kinda nuts with all my diatribes. I didn’t have any close friends like Sherm, though I wish I had had one!

I think this book is going to spark a LOT of great discussions among readers and adults about the messages girls get from media and grown-ups, how to handle issues of growing up and friendship and in general staying true to yourself. I can’t wait to share it with as many people as possible.


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