The Best Books I Read in 2017: Middle grade, YA & Adult

I’m back with a continuation of yesterday’s post on my favorite picture books I read in 2017. Today’s list covers my favorites from middle grade through adult.

What were the best books you read last year?

Middle Grade
The Tea Dragon SocietyThe Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill

I love everything about this book! Manga-style illustrations are infused with fairy tale magic resulting in wonderfully diverse characters, adorable dragons, memory-evoking tea, and a gentle friendship story about a capable girl learning both the craft of blacksmithing and the art of tea dragon caretaking.

In addition to the story there are some delightful “Extracts from the Tea Dragon Handbook” at the end. Reading it enriched my second and third looks at the tea dragons’ quiet behavior throughout the illustrations. The handbook includes descriptions of four tea dragons not featured in this book; I sure hope that means we’ll get to see them in a sequel!

Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. WhiteSome Writer!: The Story of E. B. White by Melissa Sweet

This book made me want to buy a farm house in the woods where I can live and write. (Except I wouldn’t want to take care of pigs.) A lovely biography of a beloved writer, illuminated by all kinds of archival document treasures and Melissa Sweet’s wonderful collage and illustration work. Quite long, so more for an older elementary school crowd, especially those who’ve read White’s books!

Roller GirlRoller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

Roller Girl evokes all the joys and frustration of pre-teen friendship in the fun, off-beat setting of a roller derby camp.

 

Young Adult
Tiger LilyTiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

This book is enchanting, clever and also heartbreaking. Heartbreaking not because of a single event but the accumulation of small ones gone wrong, mostly due to the folly of youth and inexperience. It’s the truth of that woven into this fantasy world that made me cry — and pick it up to re-read immediately.

FlygirlFlygirl by Sherri L. Smith

I picked this up at the library with only a glance at the synopsis — seeing that it was about a young woman training to be a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot, a WWII program) was enough of a hook for me. But within a few pages, and after getting confused by the cover art versus the opening narration, I learned that there’s an extra layer of social complexity at play in Flygirl. The light-skinned black main character, Ida Mae, is not only breaking gender barriers as a pilot; she’s also defying Jim Crow roles by passing as white to enlist. The book’s historical setting is thoroughly researched and the plot is crafted with strong, believable emotional stakes. Sometimes Ida Mae’s internal feelings could be delivered more subtly, but that didn’t prevent me from becoming totally absorbed in this story. Would love to see this as a movie.

Adult

A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia WoolfA Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf by Emily Midorikawa

One of my favorite books I read this year. The subject is inherently interesting to me, but it also very well executed. Each literary friendship the authors selected has a narrative arc and the writing rich with description that make it easy to imagine the time, place and people. So it almost feels like reading one of the subjects’ novels rather than a work of nonfiction.

Additionally, I loved reading about Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney’s own writing friendship and their research process for the book. Unfortunately, gaps in historical records led to a lot of sentences that begin with phrases like “She must have felt …”. I don’t mind their informed conjectures but the repetition of those phrases disrupted an otherwise active and engaging writing style. I also wasn’t overly compelled by their arguments that female literary friendships have been vastly overlooked in contrast to male literary friendships. I was not familiar with any of the latter examples they cited, but that may just be because I don’t dwell in the world of literary biographies. Other readers may be more convinced of the argument that this book is a historical corrective. Either way you see that, it’s a wonderful read for anyone who enjoys British literature, women’s history and shine theory.

The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy, #1)The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

Totally absorbing. A rich world full of enchantment, complicated characters and political twists that will keep you guessing as to whose story you can really believe. And the ending! Gah. If you’re averse to cliffhangers, wait till the next book comes out before you start this one.

What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American TeenWhat Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen by Kate Fagan

A tough read given the subject — a college athlete’s suicide and the broader issues around mental health among American youth — but also a must-read for anyone working with teens. Fagan sensitively crafts a heart-wrenching narrative while acknowledging the things she/we cannot know about what was going on in Maddy’s mind leading up to her death. I do wish some of the data and other research referenced had been footnoted for further reading.

The Reappearing Act: Coming Out on a College Basketball Team Led By Born-Again ChristiansThe Reappearing Act: Coming Out on a College Basketball Team Led By Born-Again Christians by Kate Fagan

I picked up “The Reappearing Act” from the library on a Saturday afternoon and finished it by Sunday morning. Why couldn’t I put it down? Because this slice-of-life memoir has all the page-turner-y goodness of a novel, plus the authenticity of author’s real struggles as a gay college athlete circa 2001. Fagan deftly alternates between the process of coming out over several basketball seasons and flashbacks to earlier memories that play off the main action as it unfolds. The result is a narrative arc propelled by both vivid details and emotional heft.

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Cirque du Soleil. If you love all of these things, you’ll love The Night Circus.
*This was actually one I returned to and re-read because I loved it so much in 2016.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud WomanShrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

Don’t wait. Read this now. Funny, relatable, smart and compassionate essays on being a fat woman in a world that disdains both those characteristics.

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Happy Halloween reads

Happy Halloween! What did you read to get in the holiday mood?
I’m averse to scary movies and books, but I do love Halloween-ish stories with witches and ghosts and pumpkin delights. That usually means that when October arrives I start feeling the itch to watch Practical Magic, Hocus Pocus, or It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. This month, however, I felt pulled to re-listen to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. It doesn’t actually involve Halloween (or any holidays), but, being set in a graveyard, it’s full of autumnal atmosphere. It really got me in the October spirit despite quite warm temperatures in Virginia.

I also love the Halloween feasts in the Harry Potter books. Here are a few other not-so-spooky October reads I recommend.

Boo-La-La Witch SpaBoo-La-La Witch Spa by Samantha Berger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s synopsis: Halloween is the most important day of the year for any witch. So when the holiday ends and the witches are tired from tricking and treating, they all head to the fa-boo Witch Spa. Here they indulge in Bat-Whisker Tea, Broom Bristle Facials, and other spooky spa goodies. A trip to the Witch Spa is sure to make any witch or warlock feel refreshed, revived, and positively revolting.

My review: Such a fun Halloween read! And the rhyming is so well done. As I read it, I felt like I was back in second grade listening to my teacher read Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss or The Night Before Christmas. Kids will love discovering all the witchy details in the illustrations.

Fright ClubFright Club by Ethan Long

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Publisher’s synopsis: Each year, on Halloween eve, Fright Club meets to go over their plan: Operation Kiddie Scare. Only the scariest of monsters can join Fright Club-Vladimir the Vampire, Fran K. Stein, Sandy Witch, and Virginia Wolf have all made the cut. They’ve been practicing their ghoulish faces, their scary moves, and their chilling sounds. But when a band of cute little critters comes along asking to join in the fun, the members of Fright Club will find out who really is the scariest of all!

My review: Fun and clever.
Leo: A Ghost StoryLeo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s synopsis: You would like being friends with Leo. He likes to draw, he makes delicious snacks, and most people can’t even see him. Because Leo is also a ghost. When a new family moves into his home and Leo’s efforts to welcome them are misunderstood, Leo decides it is time to leave and see the world. That is how he meets Jane, a kid with a tremendous imagination and an open position for a worthy knight. That is how Leo and Jane become friends. And that is when their adventures begin.

My review: Now I want to be Leo for Halloween. Love the cut paper and crayon (oil? i don’t know) illustrations in this simple friendship tale.

View all my reviews

Muslims in Kidlit Friday: Refugee experiences

Today President Trump signed an executive order that halts the processing of refugees to the U.S. for four months. He cited national security concerns and said “We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people.”

That statement describes most refugees. Shutting them out is profoundly un-empathetic.

Reading about refugee experiences is the opposite. Reaching out to refugees in your community all the more so.

Here are two children’s books about refugees (one picture book, one middle grade). The characters in these books are Muslim, but not all refugees are Muslim. See here and here for some more lists of children’s books about refugees.

Four Feet, Two SandalsFour Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Lynn Williams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: When relief workers bring used clothing to the refugee camp, everyone scrambles to grab whatever they can. Ten-year-old Lina is thrilled when she finds a sandal that fits her foot perfectly, until she sees that another girl has the matching shoe. But soon Lina and Feroza meet and decide that it is better to share the sandals than for each to wear only one. As the girls go about their routines washing clothes in the river, waiting in long lines for water, and watching for their names to appear on the list to go to America the sandals remind them that friendship is what is most important. Four Feet, Two Sandals was inspired by a refugee girl who asked the authors why there were no books about children like her. With warm colors and sensitive brush strokes, this book portrays the strength, courage, and hope of refugees around the world, whose daily existence is marked by uncertainty and fear.

My review: When a relief truck delivers clothing to a refugee camp in Pakistan, Lina and Feroza each find one yellow sandal. The two girls share the sandals, along with their daily chores, memories of lost family members, and hopes for a new home. After Lina and her mother get word they will be resettled in America, the girls decide what will happen to the sandals, but the future of their friendship (and lives) remains unknown.
This touching story opens a window onto life in a refugee camp in a heartfelt, non-didactic way, as well as speaking to the meaning of friendship. Timely and timeless.

The Red PencilThe Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

 

RELATED: 2 Picture Books about Welcoming All People (and Pets)

Muslims in Kidlit Friday: “Tell me Again How a Crush Should Feel” and “It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel”

Today’s post features two novels — one YA, one middle grade. Each has an Iranian or Iranian-American main character.

My first introduction to Iranian culture and history was when I read the graphic novel Persepolis. At that time, I only knew of Iran as a harshly ruled, conservative Muslim country. In America we often hear Middle Eastern countries talked about as if their culture and governments have been static for centuries. Learning about the Islamic revolution exposed me to how dramatically a country’s politics and daily reality can change in a short time period. That’s something worth remembering in our own nation…

Anyway, on to the books!
Tell Me Again How a Crush Should FeelTell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: High-school junior Leila has made it most of the way through Armstead Academy without having a crush on anyone, which is something of a relief. Her Persian heritage already makes her different from her classmates; if word got out that she liked girls, life would be twice as hard. But when a sophisticated, beautiful new girl, Saskia, shows up, Leila starts to take risks she never thought she would, especially when it looks as if the attraction between them is mutual. Struggling to sort out her growing feelings and Saskia’s confusing signals, Leila confides in her old friend, Lisa, and grows closer to her fellow drama tech-crew members, especially Tomas, whose comments about his own sexuality are frank, funny, wise, and sometimes painful. Gradually, Leila begins to see that almost all her classmates are more complicated than they first appear to be, and many are keeping fascinating secrets of their own.

My thoughts: Good teen novels, such as this one, are like candy. Sweet and not too complicated, so you just want to keep eating/reading. Leila’s voice is funny and real. Although this is a coming out story, I like that it starts with her already knowing she’s gay and seeming pretty comfortable with it — at least for herself. Sharing that part of her identity with private school friends and Persian family is another thing. At the same time, Leila is figuring out other parts of who she is, like what her interests are and how she can measure up to her premed sister in the eyes of her father.
Enmeshed with Leila’s coming out and coming of age narrative are the swirling drama of crushes, dating and friendship that all teens experience, and there are interesting twists in how those storylines develop. Granted, I saw the twists coming, but that they surprised Leila was believable. Some of the characters are a bit stereotyped (e.g. the vegan stage crew feminists), but part of that is tied into assumptions Leila makes about her classmates. Everyone in this story has more going on than meets than eye.
In sum: a fun YA read with a distinctive voice.
Continue reading

Hurricane Katrina 10th anniversary: 5 children’s books about strength through the storm

Hurricane Katrina children's books

This month is the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. A number of children’s books related to Katrina have come out in the last ten years, ranging from nonfiction on the storm itself to fictional stories of how kids and their families were affected.

The five books below focus on survival and recovery after the storm, but news coverage of the 10th anniversary this month also has highlighted ongoing gentrification, education reform debates and other issues. I wonder what types of children’s stories about New Orleans we’ll see in the future as the rebuilding and reinvention of the city continues to play out. Continue reading

My diverse reading from February

I read 20 books last month. Fourteen were by or about diverse characters — that’s 70 percent, an improvement from last month. Twelve of those were for children, shown below. They are picture books unless otherwise noted.

February diverse reading

Top row: “A Little Piece of Ground” by Elizabeth Laird (middle grade); “A Place Where Hurricanes Happen” by Renée Watson; “Freedom on the Menu” by Carole Boston Weatherford; “Hana Hashimoto, Sixth Violin” by Chieri Uegaki

Middle row: “Harlem’s Little Blackbird” by Renée Watson; “Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century” by Carole Boston Weatherford; “Little Melba and Her Big Trombone” by Katheryn Russell-Brown; “Mahalia Jackson: Walking with Kings and Queens” by Nina Nolan

Bottom row: “Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People” by Monica Brown; “Soccer Star” by Mina Javaherbin; “The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage” by Selina Alko; “Those Shoes” by Maribeth Boelts

The two adult books on my diverse reading list in February were “On Beauty” by Zadie Smith and “MARCH: Book One” by Congressman John Lewis. The latter is a graphic novel about Lewis’ involvement in the civil rights movement and would be great for teenagers as well as adults.

March! Book one

In case you missed it, my We Need Diverse Books resolution this year is 50 books. I’m almost halfway there already — maybe I need to bump it up?

What diverse reading have you been doing?

 

Got graphic novels?

Illustrator Mary Rockcastle recently posted a list of “9 Graphic Novels Every Girl Should Read” that look wonderful. Hat tip to Emily C. for sharing the link with me!

Although the headline refers to “girls,” I don’t think Rockcastle’s suggestions are geared to children. Some would no doubt be good for teenagers, though. I’ve only read two on the list, so getting to the rest is now among my 2015 reading goals.

For younger kids, my top graphic novel recommendation is Cece Bell’s “El Deafo.” Published by Abrams last year, it depicts a deaf girl navigating friendships and crushes while wearing a “phonic ear” device that allows her to hear her teacher anywhere in the school. (Yes, that includes when the teacher’s in the bathroom!) It’s actually a memoir about Bell’s own childhood, though she’s portrayed as a rabbit.

Here’s a video of Bell talking about “El Deafo”:

Got any suggestions for graphic novels focused on social justice events, characters or themes? If so, please share them in the comments!

(And if you feel iffy about the merits of reading graphic novels, go read this feature story I recently wrote on the subject: “Want your kid to read more? Give them graphic novels.”)

Political violence from a child’s eyes: I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín

I Lived on Butterfly Hill

I first read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank in third grade. I distinctly remember thinking it was a FAT book. Child view of the world right there. Imagine if I’d seen a copy of Moby Dick! I don’t know how I got my hands on that book — my teacher? a sibling? — but I’m certain I read it solely for the accomplishment, because my seven-year-old mind didn’t really grasp the moral weight of it.

Yes, I got that the Frank family were hiding from persecution. But the scale of the Holocaust and the testament to the human spirit that Anne’s voice became?

I was a little too busy pretending I was an alien from a planet called Orton for that. (True story.)

Three years later, however, several classmates and I plowed through stacks of books set during the Holocaust. Some of the stories were true, like The Cage by Ruth Minsky Sender. Many were fictionalized based on real events. I’ve forgotten most of the titles, but I remember snippets of other details. Like kids hiding at a school when Nazis came (a Google search says that’s from a book called Twenty and Ten), or a litle girl peering through a a hole in a suffocating cattle car on the way to a concentration camp.

We may have talked about the Holocaust in class, but I honestly don’t remember that. Memoirs and fiction were the primary way I learned about concentration camps and Jewish ghettos and genocide.

Now that I’m older, though, I also know about mass atrocities in other places throughout the world and modern times. And I wonder why I didn’t read books told from the perspective of kids living through, say, the Trail of Tears, or Argentina’s Dirty War?

Enter I Lived on Butterfly Hill by Marjorie Agosín. I stumbled upon this middle-grade novel, published by Simon & Schuster in March, last week at the library. What a find! Continue reading