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Old Favorites: Jennie Lindquist March 6, 2016

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I was an avid reader of so-called ‘old-fashioned books’ when I was a kid—Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess were all familiar friends. My top favorites however, were a trilogy about a group of children in rural New Hampshire. These three books—The Golden Name Day, The Little Silver House and The Crystal Tree—are all out of print now, which is a shame, because they are delightful and would probably appeal to many young readers today.

goldenWritten by Jennie D. Lindquist, who edited The Horn Book Magazine from 1951 to 1958, these are old-fashioned family stories, warm and cheerful, with almost no mention of world events or historical figures. I believe I read somewhere that Lindquist based the stories on her own grandparents, who were from Sweden, though I’m unable to find the source for that information. The first title (which won a Newbery Honor in 1956) begins with the protagonist Nancy arriving in a small village to stay with family friends who she calls Grandma and Grandpa. At first lonely and upset to be so far away from her parents, she slowly grows to love the country and the many Swedish customs practiced by her foster family. The second book follows Nancy and her friends as they discover an abandoned house in the village and their attempts to find out about the family who once owned it. The third title deals with the changes and preparations to be made as Nancy and her parents rent the house and begin a new life there, surrounded by friends and family.

silverLike the All-of-a-Kind-Family series, which takes place at roughly the same time (the early 20th century), but in a very different setting, these books feature a close-knit family who celebrate the year’s holidays together, as well as smaller events such as having visitors or taking a weekend trip to the farm. The quiet activities of baking cookies, papering a room and planting flowers suited the cautious child reader that I was, reluctant to try new things. As a city kid, I loved to imagine riding in a wagon out to the farm, picking mayflowers in a wood, and decorating a schoolroom with hundreds of daisies.

crystalThe story elements that stuck with me the most though, were the many Swedish traditions scattered throughout each book, from the keeping of name days, with a special cake and flower crowns, to making karamuller treats during the holidays and dancing the Long Dance of Christmas Eve around the Christmas tree. I’ve thought quite a bit about why these stories, as opposed to the many better known classics that I read in elementary school, are the books I have returned to again and again. I think it must be that the characters identify so strongly as immigrants and a proud immigrant narrative was lacking in most of the literature I was exposed to as a kid. I come from a family who told and retold our stories of coming to the United States, from Mexico (on my mom’s side) and France (on my dad’s). But we didn’t have any family close by and with the exception of piñatas on birthdays and tamales on special occasions, we celebrated few culture-specific traditions. Although I have no personal connection to Sweden, this series of books taught me to be proud of the places my ancestors came from, to hold onto the stories I was told and to pass them on.

ALAYMA Wishes January 11, 2016

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The winners of the ALA Youth Media Awards will be announced tomorrow and as always, I plan to watch the webcast and comment extensively via Twitter. I didn’t read quite as many award blogs or predictions this year and only managed to get through two of the Morris finalists (I did better with the YALSA Non-fiction finalists). As a result, I am not going to make firm predictions this year. However, I am going to list a few titles I hope end up with shiny stickers come Monday.

Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle

Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The Bear Took Your Sandwich by Julia Sarcone-Roach

The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore

Funny Bones by Duncan Tonatiuh


December Favorite: Signal to Noise December 21, 2015

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signalThis book had been on my radar for quite awhile. I’m sure someone talked about it on Twitter, or mentioned it in a blog post, and it definitely came up on the comprehensive list of titles from 2015 that my fellow bloggers at Latin@s in Kid Lit compiled. It took awhile for me to get ahold of a copy, as DC Public Library did not have one. But Arlington Public Library did, so this month started with me falling completely in love with Danielle, Sebastian and especially Meche, the heroes of this magical tale.

Signal to Noise has a little bit of everything. There’s friendship. There’s (lots) of music. There’s magic. There’s romance. Everything is mixed together with just enough drama and poignancy and I love it all so much. The setting in working-class Mexico City is vibrant and compelling and the magic worked by the three teenagers isn’t overwritten. In some ways, it almost feels like the author is intentionally subverting the characters of Harry Potter–in this version it’s the lone boy who is the brainy intellectual and the girl is the powerful, impulsive magician who only cares about achieving her goals. The structure of the novel, jumping back and forth between the 80’s, when the characters are teens and 2009, when they are adults in their 30’s, helps build tension and suspense as you wait to find out what went wrong between the friends so long ago. And the ending is completely earned and satisfying, so you come away with a smile on your face. In short, this was one of my favorite reads of the year, a book that I know I’ll return to again and again.

November Favorite: The Memory of Light December 15, 2015

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lightThis was the first book I read in November and it remains my favorite. I was in Munich, taking a six hour train to Prague and I was trying very hard to ration the three books I had brought with me for the two week trip. I told myself I would read a few chapters, then work on some drawing and note-taking and save the rest for later.

As you may imagine, that didn’t happen. As soon as I began reading about Vicky, her friends and allies, her family and challenges, there was no way I was putting this book down. There are other YA books about suicide attempts, but I don’t think I’ve read one that is so thoroughly clear-eyed, but ultimately hopeful about the process of healing and facing the struggles of living with depression.

Francisco Stork creates a cast of unforgettable teens in this book, all of whom defy stereotypes. Vicky herself is a painfully authentic teen and all readers will feel for her as she works to take control of her life and health. This book will provide a lifeline to teens struggling with similar  issues and it gives a window to the rest on the challenges of dealing with a mental illness.

I love that Stork can tackle tough subjects while still including moments of humor. I also like how even more than in Marcelo in the Real World, he touches on the prejudice that often exists between Latinos of different generations and classes. The relationship between Vicky and her sister is so important to this story and so wonderful to see evolve. Whether or not you or someone you know has experience with mental illness, this is a captivating read. I highly recommend it for everyone.

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.