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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.

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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.

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.

Oh My Gods! Comics for a Mythology Lover February 14, 2015

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For those of you who love Greek mythology, there are plenty of awesome comics retelling these ancient stories for both kids and adults! Here are a few:

Amazing Greek Myths of Wonders and Blunders

by Michael Townsend

blundersThe table of contents gives a sense of the tone of this one: “Pygmalion’s Rocky Relationship!” “Arachne Gets a Big Head!” This collection features mostly side stories (Icarus, Pandora etc.) rather than the twelve great gods. The artwork is brightly colored and occasionally silly, making this a good choice for younger readers. Also, there are sheep. Lots of them.

Olympians Series by George O’Connor

zeusIf you’d rather stick to the twelve main gods, look no further than this fantastic series, which has seven books out so far. Starting with Zeus, each book focuses on stories about one particular god or goddess, paired with gorgeous artwork. O’Connor shapes the stories to be as action packed and suspenseful as any superhero story and includes a bibliography and author’s note explaining his sources. In an additional section titled “G(r)eek Notes” he talks about his process in drawing the panels and points out tiny details and hidden references throughout the series for hardcore fans.

The Odyssey by Gareth Hinds

odysseyIf epic wanderings and misfortunes are more your style, why not try this take on the great Homer himself? Leaving out none of the adventures, from the Cyclops to the bloody homecoming at Ithaca, Hinds’ lush, detailed panels reflect the scope and rich language of the original poem. The monsters are scary, the gods are intimidating and Odysseus himself is very sympathetic in this fantastic retelling that makes it clear why this tale has lasted so long.

Three Septembers and a January August 8, 2014

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With apologies to Neil Gaiman for stealing one of his titles from Sandman, here are four ARCs I’ve read recently that I can’t wait to share with readers:

deafoEl Deafo by Cece Bell (September)

This is without a doubt my favorite graphic novel of the year so far. When she was four years old, an illness left Bell with limited hearing and she had to wear a hearing aid to school. As she struggles to make friends, explain the hearing aid and find a way to fit in, she creates the character of ‘El Deafo’ a superhero with extra-sensitive hearing. And although the hearing aid gives her some embarrassing moments, it also leads to some triumphs. This was a funny, inspiring and flat-out fantastic read.

Egg and Spoon by Gregory Maguire (September)

eggMaguire combines Russian folktales and his own special brand of wit and whimsy in this tale of two girls–one rich, one poor–and their encounters with a prince, a Firebird, an ice dragon and the indomitable Baba Yaga. With lush descriptions that never overwhelm the story, laugh-out-loud asides from ‘Miss Yaga’ and quiet wisdom about heroism and choices, this is a near-perfect read. A great title to pair with Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz or The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier for readers who want a mix of mystery, fantasy and history.

Love is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson (September)

loveI was a huge fan of Johnson’s YA debut The Summer Prince when it came out last year and I’m even more impressed by this thriller set in Washington DC. Emily Bird is a student at Devonshire Academy, whose mother insists on academic and social perfection. But she would rather hang out in Northeast with her uncle and cousin, dream of opening a small store and–maybe–get to know Coffee, the Brazilian non-conformist who just might be in love with her. But with a government agent lurking who is convinced Bird knows dangerous secrets, and a deadly flu virus ravaging the city, Bird must figure out how to take control of her future. This one is for readers who like mysteries, thrillers, love stories–really, for anyone who loves a  great read.

The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (January)

warIt’s not out until January. But I just finished this new title by the author of Jefferson’s Sons and I am in love with it. This is the perfect read-aloud for kids who love the American Girl doll Molly and it will also please fans of World War II YA fare like Code Name Verity.  Ada is ten, but has never been able to walk or leave her house because of a clubfoot she has had from birth. Her mother is ashamed of her disability and abuses both her and her little brother Jamie. But when the war comes and Jamie is sent away to the country, Ada follows and slowly learns to walk, to trust others and to believe in herself.  With excellent period details, a spy story, horses and strong emotional resonance, this book will please just about everyone.

Latino Book Challenge August 2, 2014

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I have given myself several book-related challenges this year. As a bookseller, I resolved to stop asking whether customers were purchasing for a boy or girl and instead focus my queries on gender-neutral characteristics like genre or other books the child has enjoyed. As the We Need Diverse Books campaign ramped up in May, I started trying to make sure I read at least two diverse titles every time I do a story time for the bookstore. And since January, I’ve been trying to keep track of all the Latino books I read for the Latinos In Kid Lit challenge.

The challenge is simple: read at least one book by a. a Latino author or b. about a Latino character each month. This challenge will go in a slightly different direction once I leave for South America later this month, but here are some favorites that I’ve read so far:

fire

Fire! Fuego! Brave Bomberos by Susan Middleton Elya, illus. by Dan Santat

For any child who loves fire engines or firefighters, this is a fantastic read aloud with lots of Spanish mixed into the story. My preschool students loved it and played firefighters enthusiastically after listening.

paleta

What Can You Do With a Paleta? by Carmen Tafolla, illus. by Magaly Morales

Beautiful illustrations and an imaginative storyline about a sweet treat for the summer. Even if your reader isn’t familiar with a paleta they will enjoy finding all the little details in the pictures. It will probably also make you hungry.

roja

Little Roja Riding Hood by Susan Middleton Elya, illus. by Susan Guvara

I love fairy tale retellings and this, along with the new Ninja Red Riding Hood is one of my favorites. Lots of Spanish mixed in, but the familiar storyline will help readers figure out the meanings. Great illustrations as well.

separate

Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh

A non-fiction picture book about the court case that integrated schools in California in the late 1940’s. Sylvia Mendez was told she had to go to the ‘Mexican school’ despite being an American citizen and speaking perfect English. Her family fought back with a lawsuit and won, establishing an important precedent for the more familiar Brown vs. Board of Education case. Tonatiuh’s text is a great read aloud and the pictures are vibrant and engaging.

caminar

Caminar by Skila Brown

This is possibly my favorite title here. In a poetry format, Brown tells the story of a boy in Guatemala in the 1980’s, whose entire village is killed in an attack by government forces. All along, he must climb a mountain to find his grandmother and warn her village of the danger. Beautifully written and with a sensitive author’s note, this book shines light on a piece of history almost always neglected by US history classes. A gem.