Adult Nonfiction Roundup: August 2017

In which I review the latest adult nonfiction books I've read. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Today’s adult nonfiction roundup covers a lot of ground. There are fun how-to books, a biography (?), and some more serious fare as well. Whether you want to learn more about social issues or Jane Austen, there’s something here for you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

$2.00 a Day

After two decades of brilliant research on American poverty, Kathryn Edin noticed something she hadn’t seen since the mid-1990s — households surviving on virtually no income. Edin teamed with Luke Shaefer, an expert on calculating incomes of the poor, to discover that the number of American families living on $2.00 per person, per day, has skyrocketed to 1.5 million American households, including about 3 million children.

Where do these families live? How did they get so desperately poor? Edin has “turned sociology upside down” (Mother Jones) with her procurement of rich — and truthful — interviews. Through the book’s many compelling profiles, moving and startling answers emerge.

$2.00 a Day was fascinating and frustrating. The authors show how families across America are surviving on less than $2 per person per day. They explore welfare and other governmental assistance, attempts at getting and holding subpar jobs, and the role of abusive families in these people’s lives. If you don’t know much about these poorest of the poor in the U.S., this book will open your eyes. I found myself talking about the stories in this book for days, and I still think about the issues presented here whenever the discussion turns to poverty.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Jane Austen Education

Before Jane Austen, William Deresiewicz was a very different young man. A sullen and arrogant graduate student, he never thought Austen would have anything to offer him. Then he read Emma—and everything changed.

In this unique and lyrical book, Deresiewicz weaves the misadventures of Austen’s characters with his own youthful follies, demonstrating the power of the great novelist’s teachings—and how, for Austen, growing up and making mistakes are one and the same.

A pretentious English major learns to love Jane Austen as he grows and applies her lessons to his life. I love Jane Austen, but I really disliked the author’s take on her works. He’s “too good” for Austen, and it takes a lot of work for him to appreciate the lessons she teaches in her novels. Sure, there are a couple of interesting points about Austen’s works which I enjoyed, but I’m never a fan of pretentious authors, and that really impeded my enjoyment of this book.

Rating: Meh

The Skeleton Crew

The Skeleton Crew provides an entree into the gritty and tumultuous world of Sherlock Holmes–wannabes who race to beat out law enforcement—and one another—at matching missing persons with unidentified remains.

In America today, upwards of forty thousand people are dead and unaccounted for. These murder, suicide, and accident victims, separated from their names, are being adopted by the bizarre online world of amateur sleuths. It’s DIY CSI.

The web sleuths pore over facial reconstructions (a sort of Facebook for the dead) and other online clues as they vie to solve cold cases and tally up personal scorecards of dead bodies. The Skeleton Crew delves into the macabre underside of the Internet, the fleeting nature of identity, and how even the most ordinary citizen with a laptop and a knack for puzzles can reinvent herself as a web sleuth.

The Skeleton Crew provides an interesting look at the “web sleuths” who are helping solve cold cases involving missing persons and unidentified bodies. There’s a surprising amount of drama surrounding the web sleuth community, but the real draw for me was the solving of cases the police have given up on. The author weaves several real-life cold cases that were solved by amateur sleuths into her book, and I found myself racing to the end so I could discover who the unidentified bodies turned out to be.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

We Should All Be Feminists

With humor and levity, here Adichie offers readers a unique definition of feminism for the twenty-first century—one rooted in inclusion and awareness. She shines a light not only on blatant discrimination, but also the more insidious, institutional behaviors that marginalize women around the world, in order to help readers of all walks of life better understand the often masked realities of sexual politics. Throughout, she draws extensively on her own experiences—in the U.S., in her native Nigeria, and abroad—offering an artfully nuanced explanation of why the gender divide is harmful for women and men, alike.

This succinct, insightful essay should be mandatory reading for all of us (cliche but true). If you or someone you know isn’t convinced that they are or should be a feminist, this essay is for you. It’s short enough that everyone can make time to read it. I’m certainly glad I did.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

The Little Book of Hygge

You know hygge when you feel it. It is when you are cuddled up on a sofa with a loved one, or sharing comfort food with your closest friends. It is those crisp blue mornings when the light through your window is just right.

Who better than Meik Wiking to be your guide to all things hygge? Meik is CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and has spent years studying the magic of Danish life. In this beautiful, inspiring book he will help you be more hygge: from picking the right lighting and planning a dinner party through to creating an emergency hygge kit and even how to dress.

I like the ideas of hygge, but this book just rehashes a lot of things that are already familiar to many readers who have spent time on Pinterest. I feel the book would have worked better as a series of blog posts.

Rating: Meh

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks, as HeLa, is known to present-day scientists for her cells from cervical cancer. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells were taken without her knowledge and still live decades after her death. Cells descended from her may weigh more than 50M metric tons.

HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta Lacks was buried in an unmarked grave.

This book tells the interesting, upsetting, fascinating story of the woman whose cancer cells were stolen to create HeLa. HeLa became a line of cells that helped create polio vaccines, went into space, got blown up by nuclear bombs, and were experimented on in countless ways that advanced science and medical care by leaps and bounds. At the same time, Lacks’s family was never compensated for or even told of the HeLa cell line, and her descendants struggle to pay for their own medical bills.

The author goes on a journey to discover who Henrietta Lacks was, and along the way, she spends time with the Lacks family, medical researchers, and anyone else who has been affected by Henrietta’s cells. The book offers an exploration of ethics, racism, and law as they relate to medical research, and it made me think very differently about the research we do with human subjects. Although the book is part biography, part scientific exploration, it reads like a novel, even for those of us without a strong medical background.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla

A child’s concept of race is quite different from that of an adult. Young children perceive skin color as magical–even changeable–and unlike adults, are incapable of understanding adult predjudices surrounding race and racism. Just as children learn to walk and talk, they likewise come to understand race in a series of predictable stages.

Based on Marguerite A. Wright’s research and clinical experience, I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla teaches us that the color-blindness of early childhood can, and must, be taken advantage of in order to guide the positive development of a child’s self-esteem.

This book was recommended to me as a useful book for people considering adopting a child of a different race, and although I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla was not written primarily with that focus in mind, I did find it very interesting for parents or teachers of any race who work with children of color. It offers Dr. Wright’s thoughts on how to raise healthy black and biracial children in our race-focused world, supported by dozens of stories and interviews from her own research on the topic. This book brought up a lot of points I wouldn’t have thought of, like the fact that children don’t see race/color the same way adults do, and that adults need to be careful not to impose our own racially tinted viewpoints on children.

I do wish there was an updated version–this book was published in the late 1990s, and I feel like there is more to say on this topic given the events that have taken place between then and now. Still, the book provides a lot of food for thought, and I’ll definitely reference it in the future.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

YA Reads: Summer 2017

I'm sharing my latest YA reads: the good, the bad, and the popular. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Summers are made for YA reads, and that’s exactly what I’ve been reading all summer. Some have been really fun; others have been disappointing. I’m sure you’ll find at least one book on this list for your summer YA reading needs! (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Ana of California

Fifteen-year-old orphan Ana Cortez has just blown her last chance with a foster family. It’s a group home next—unless she agrees to leave East Los Angeles for a farm trainee program in Northern California.

When she first arrives, Ana can’t tell a tomato plant from a blackberry bush, and Emmett Garber is skeptical that this slight city girl can be any help on his farm. His sister Abbie, however, thinks Ana might be just what they need. Ana comes to love Garber Farm, and even Emmett has to admit that her hard work is an asset. But when she inadvertently stirs up trouble in town, Ana is afraid she might have ruined her last chance at finding a place to belong.

This book was not as good as I had hoped. Ana, a foster kid running from her past, has to try to prove herself by working on a farm–it’s her last chance before being sent to a group home. I love the idea of having more MG and YA books focused on the foster care experience, but this book is filled with way more drama than necessary. I also wish Ana hadn’t spoken so poetically–no teenager talks like that, guys. I was hoping for a more realistic depiction of teenage life and foster families, and this book left me cold on both areas.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Lucky Strikes

With her mama recently dead and her pa sight unseen since birth, fourteen-year-old Amelia is suddenly in charge of her younger brother and sister, and of the family gas station. Harley Blevins, local king and emperor of Standard Oil, is in hot pursuit to clinch his fuel monopoly. To keep him at bay and her family out of foster care, Melia must come up with a father, and fast. And so when a hobo rolls out of a passing truck, Melia grabs opportunity by its beard. Can she hold off the hounds till she comes of age?

I loved Melia’s voice in this book. Her 1930s Southern accent comes across well without making the text unreadable, as written accents sometimes do. (There is a fair amount of swearing in this book, so be forewarned.) In Lucky Strikes, a motley family made of three children and a homeless man pretending to be their father attempt to keep Brenda’s Oasis from falling prey to the local petroleum baron after their mother’s death. The three children, especially Melia, are scrappy and resourceful, and even when they make mistakes (I don’t know any adult who would think Melia’s decision to force a stranger to become the father of the family was a good one) they are relatable and understandable. Unique and fresh, with a good balance between heavy moments and humor.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Anna and the French Kiss

Anna is looking forward to her senior year in Atlanta, where she has a great job, a loyal best friend, and a crush on the verge of becoming more. Which is why she is less than thrilled about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris–until she meets Étienne St. Clair. Smart, charming, beautiful, Étienne has it all…including a serious girlfriend.

But in the City of Light, wishes have a way of coming true. Will a year of romantic near-misses end with their long-awaited French kiss?

Cute teen romances aren’t for me, apparently. Anna and the French Kiss was a fun, quick read, but I got annoyed at the characters for being so immature. (I know, I know, they’re teenagers in love… I was still annoyed.) I can see how I probably would have loved this book as a teenager myself, but reading it as an adult wasn’t my favorite.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Stars Above

The universe of the Lunar Chronicles holds stories—and secrets—that are wondrous, vicious, and romantic. How did Cinder first arrive in New Beijing? How did the brooding soldier Wolf transform from young man to killer? When did Princess Winter and the palace guard Jacin realize their destinies?

Stars Above is so much fun! If you haven’t already read through the Lunar Chronicles, I highly recommend it, both on its own merits and because this book won’t make any sense without it. As someone who greatly enjoyed the Lunar Chronicles series, I loved seeing the characters I grew to love having new adventures (both before and after the events of the series). These short stories are a great continuation of the world Marissa Meyer has created.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister

Sohane loves no one more than her beautiful, carefree younger sister, Djelila. And she hates no one as much. They used to share everything. But now, Djelila is spending more time with her friends, partying, and hanging out with boys, while Sohane is becoming more religious.

When Sohane starts wearing a head scarf, her school threatens to expel her. Meanwhile, Djelila is harassed by neighborhood bullies for not being Muslim enough. Sohane can’t help thinking that Djelila deserves what she gets. But she never could have imagined just how far things would go. . .

I feel I should warn you right away: This book is not for the fainthearted. It shows the very different paths of two Muslim sisters living in France. One becomes more religious and gets expelled for wearing the hijab (illegal in French schools); the other becomes more secular, wearing tight clothing, smoking, and drinking. One of these sisters has something horrific happen to her, and the other sister is left to consider where it all went wrong. This is a powerful book and I’m glad I read it, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to read it again.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Chasing Eveline

*Note: I received this book as a gift from the author. She did not request a review. All opinions are my own.

Sixteen-year-old Ivy Higgins is the only student at Carmel Heights High School who listens to cassettes. And her binder is the only one decorated with album artwork by 80s band Chasing Eveline. Despite being broken-up since 1989, this rock band out of Ireland means everything to Ivy. They’re a reminder of her mom, who abandoned Ivy and her dad two years ago. Now the music of her mom’s favorite band is the only connection she has left.

Even though Ivy wavers between anger and a yearning to reconnect, she’s one-hundred percent certain she’s not ready to lose her mom forever. But the only surefire way to locate her would be at a Chasing Eveline concert. So with help from her lone friend Matt—an equally abandoned soul and indie music enthusiast—Ivy hatches a plan to reunite the band.

I really wanted to like this book. A teenage girl tries to remember her mom by getting her favorite band back together–what’s not to like? Well, to start off with, Ivy is super irritating and immature. Her and her friend’s attempts at raising money to travel to Ireland and reunite the band include being a scam charity and making fun of homeless people during their attempts to be street performers, and I found this kind of gross. The book should have been more about Ivy dealing with her mom’s disappearance, but it was more about her achieving her ridiculous goal (and *spoiler alert* being disappointed in the results anyway). I’d give this one a pass, unless you have a much higher tolerance for irritating characters than I do.

Rating: Meh

1930s Newbery Reviews

Meggy Macintosh

Meggy MacIntosh had a gentle manner and an adventurous spirit inherited from her father who had fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie. But there was no adventure in Edinburgh where Meggy was the neglected ward of her titled uncle, so she ran away to North Carolina to find her heroine, the celebrated Flora MacDonald. Meggy reached the Carolinas in March 1775 where she finally meets the Highlanders of her dreamson. (Summary via goodreads.com)

This book is an interesting historical fiction novel about a Scottish girl who makes the trek to America and becomes a Patriot. Meggy spends a lot of time adjusting to the new, wild environment of the New World, and she is torn between her childhood heroine (a supporter of the king) and her growing sense that America is worth fighting for. Sadly, there’s a fair amount of racism toward slaves and Native Americans contained within. I enjoyed Meggy’s story, but it was greatly marred by its racist content.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Garram the Hunter

Garram, son of the chief of the Hillmen tribe, is forced to flee his home when it is revealed to him that a planned usurping of his father’s position as chief will take place soon unless Garram goes into hiding. The journey that Garram subsequently embarks upon helps prepare him for the inevitable confrontation with his father’s political enemies that is sure to occur when he eventually returns home. (Summary via goodreads.com)

If you like hunting and fighting, you might like this book. That’s pretty much all that’s involved in the story. As you might expect, a white American man isn’t a very sensitive author to write about tribal Africa. It’s not the worst book I’ve ever read, but it certainly isn’t one I’d read again.

Rating: Meh

More MG and YA Book Reviews!

A big roundup of middle grades and YA book reviews. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I realized recently that I have a long list of middle grades and YA books (including a couple of ARCs that have since been published) that have been languishing on my “to be reviewed” list for way too long. As I went back through the list, I was surprised to remember how many of them I really enjoyed! I hope you find one or two books here to add to your list. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Who Could That Be at This Hour?

The adventure began in a fading town. Far from anyone he knew or trusted, a young Lemony Snicket started an apprenticeship for a secret organization shrouded in mystery and secrecy. He asked questions that shouldn’t have been on his mind. Now he has written an account that should not be published that shouldn’t be read. Not even by you. Seriously, we recommend that you do NOT ask your parents for this, the first book in his new ALL THE WRONG QUESTIONS series.

I read this book when I was sick as a dog with strep throat, and I actually found it pretty entertaining. It’s about young Lemony Snicket’s adventures, and it has Snicket’s trademark quirky, funny narration and weird circumstances. I’m not sure if I’ll continue reading this series, but you might give it a shot if you enjoyed Series of Unfortunate Events.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Armstrong & Charlie [Note: I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.]

Charlie isn’t looking forward to sixth grade. After all, if he starts sixth grade, chances are he’ll finish it. And when he does, he’ll be older than his older brother ever was. Armstrong isn’t looking forward to sixth grade, either. This year, he’ll have to wake up at 5:30 to ride a bus to an all-white school in the Hollywood Hills.

When Armstrong and Charlie are assigned seats next to each other, what starts as a rivalry becomes a close friendship. Set in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Armstrong and Charlie is the hilarious, heartwarming tale of two boys from opposite worlds. Different, yet the same.

This book is set during the desegregation of schools in California in the 1970s. Armstrong is part of a small group of black students who are now being bused into white school districts. Charlie’s parents want Charlie to be involved in welcoming these students. Armstrong’s bullying, Charlie’s recent loss of his brother Andy, and ever-increasing racial tensions make these two unlikely friends, but they slowly grow to respect and stand up for each other.

I thought the author did a great job of portraying the sputtering friendship of these two boys as they both face the challenges of growing up, but it does make me a bit nervous that the author himself is white (The Help, anyone?). It seems like he did his research and was respectful of the real racial tensions of the 70s, but I’d love to hear the perspective of someone who is not white.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Odd and the Frost Giants

The winter isn’t ending. Nobody knows why. And Odd has run away from home, even though he can barely walk and has to use a crutch. Out in the forest he encounters a bear, a fox, and an eagle – three creatures with a strange story to tell.

Now Odd is faced with a stranger journey than he had ever imagined.
A journey to save Asgard, City of the Norse Gods, from the Frost Giants who have invaded it. It’s going to take a very special kind of boy to defeat the most dangerous of all the Frost Giants and rescue the mighty Gods. Someone cheerful and infuriating and clever. Someone just like Odd…

You know I’m going to read any children’s book that Neil Gaiman puts out. This is a cute story of Odin, Thor, and Loki and the boy named Odd who saved them from one of their mythical scrapes. It’s a fun book for kids who are into mythology.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life [Note: I received a free copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.]

Everything is about to change. Until this moment, Sal has always been certain of his place with his adoptive gay father and their loving Mexican-American family. But now his own history unexpectedly haunts him, and life-altering events force him and his best friend, Samantha, to confront issues of faith, loss, and grief.

Suddenly Sal is throwing punches, questioning everything, and discovering that he no longer knows who he really is—but if Sal’s not who he thought he was, who is he?

Be prepared to cry as Salvador, Sam, and Fito deal with death, addiction, and hate in their senior year of high school. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but be aware that this book deals with themes of ethnicity, homosexuality, addiction, neglectful parents, death, adoption, and the fear of growing up. Sounds like a downer, right? But there is a real joy in this book. Each of the friends, despite their broken, messy families, find a family with each other and with Sal’s father. They talk like teenagers and make mistakes that teenagers make, but they are always there for each other, respecting each other despite their differences.

I’d only recommend this book to older teens because of its difficult themes. But if you’re up for it, The Inexplicable Logic of My Life provides a sad but ultimately hopeful look at the lives of three teenagers struggling to grow up.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit, Volume I is a collection of stories from African American history that exemplifies success in the face of great adversity. This unique graphic anthology offers historical and cultural commentary on nine uncelebrated heroes whose stories are not often found in history books. Among the stories included are: Henry “Box” Brown, who escaped from slavery by mailing himself to Philadelphia; Alexander Crummel and the Noyes Academy, the first integrated school in America, established in the 1830s; Marshall “Major” Taylor, a.k.a. the Black Cyclone, the first black champion in any sport; and Bass Reeves, the most successful lawman in the Old West. Written and illustrated by Joel Christian Gill, the diverse art beautifully captures the spirit of each remarkable individual and opens a window into an important part of American history.

This graphic novel is filled with comics about real-life African American heroes. I had heard of only a few of these people, and I was fascinated to read these short comics about their lives and successes. Despite the title, which refers to the lynching of African Americans, this book is on the whole an uplifting exploration of some obscure but interesting, hardworking, and talented historical figures.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Snicker of Magic

Midnight Gulch used to be a magical place, a town where people could sing up thunderstorms and dance up sunflowers. But that was long ago, before a curse drove the magic away. Twelve-year-old Felicity knows all about things like that; her nomadic mother is cursed with a wandering heart.

But when she arrives in Midnight Gulch, Felicity thinks her luck’s about to change. A “word collector,” Felicity sees words everywhere—shining above strangers, tucked into church eves, and tangled up her dog’s floppy ears—but Midnight Gulch is the first place she’s ever seen the word “home.” And then there’s Jonah, a mysterious, spiky-haired do-gooder who shimmers with words Felicity’s never seen before, words that make Felicity’s heart beat a little faster.

Felicity wants to stay in Midnight Gulch more than anything, but first, she’ll need to figure out how to bring back the magic, breaking the spell that’s been cast over the town . . . and her mother’s broken heart.

So sweet! Felicity meets a new and unusual friend named Jonah in Midnight Gulch, a magical place where she hopes her mother will finally settle down. If you need a lighthearted story which nevertheless explores themes of home and belonging (with a side of magic), this is the book for you.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn

When Miss Eells gives young Anthony a job at the library, he thinks he’ll just be dusting shelves and filing books. Instead, he discovers a hidden clue leading to the treasure of eccentric millionaire Alpheus Winterborn. Miss Eells thinks the clues are a practical joke left by the odd, old Winterborn before he died. But then why do things suddenly start getting so strange? And terrifying?

I don’t remember who recommended this book to me, but my main thought as I finished the book was, “Well, that was weird.” Anthony has to outsmart the evil Hugo Philpotts in order to find the eccentric library founder’s treasure. I had heard it was supposed to be suspenseful, that the author was king of writing gothic and horror works for children, but I didn’t find it dark or creepy, just strange. Maybe it’s because the book seems a bit outdated; maybe it’s because the adults aren’t just incompetent but actually antagonistic; maybe it’s because Anthony himself is a bit of a brat (all the characters in this story are kind of jerks). Whatever the reason, this just didn’t work for me.

Rating: Meh

Newbery Roundup: April

My latest Newbery reads--some old, some new. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m continuing to slog through the backlist of Newbery books. Whether through ILL, Paperback Swap, or my own library’s collection, I’m slowly but surely working my way through. I’ll be honest–most of these older books don’t capture my imagination the way the newer ones do, so I’m going to keep these reviews short. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Pran of Albania

Pran is a daughter of the sturdy mountain tribes of Albania – old enough to be betrothed in accordance with the ancient tribal traditions. This is the story of Pran and her life in the mountains and the refugee barracks at Skodra; of her friend, the laughing blue-eyed Nush and his secret; of her adventures in war times and peace, of her betrothal and the strange vow she takes.

This book offers an interesting look at Albania and women’s roles there one hundred years ago. I have no idea how accurate Pran is in describing Albanian life or whether the author had any experience living in or studying Albania, so I’m not sure I can recommend it. The story itself is not super memorable.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Zlateh the Goat

Chelm is a village of fools. The most famous fools—the oldest and the greatest—are the seven Elders. But there are lesser fools too: a silly irresponsible bridegroom; four sisters who mix up their feed in bed one night; a young man who imagines himself dead. Here are seven magical folktales spun by a master storyteller, that speak of fools, devils, schlemiels, and even heroes—like Zlateh the goat.

I actually enjoyed this one. It’s a cute, funny collection of folk stories about foolish characters doing silly things. Some of these stories will probably be familiar to you; others will be brand new. It’s worth a look if you like silly folk tales.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Journey Outside

Grandfather said they were headed for the Better Place, but Dilar suspected they were headed nowhere, simply following the dark underground river blindly. And so one night he leaped onto a shelf of rock and watched the flotilla of the Raft People disappear. And from there he found his way Outside, into a world so beautiful and strange he could only suppose he had died-a world of day, and sun, of trees and sky.

Weird is the only word I have to describe this book. It’s possibly an allegory about what kind of life will provide happiness, or possibly just a fantasy story about Dilar’s adventures Outside and the different people he meets. It’s well written, of course, but incredibly strange. It wasn’t for me.

Rating: Meh

Frog and Toad Together

Frog and Toad are best friends—they do everything together. When Toad admires the flowers in Frog’s garden, Frog gives him seeds to grow a garden of his own. When Toad bakes cookies, Frog helps him eat them. And when both Frog and Toad are scared, they are brave together.

So cute! I love the illustrations and the silly, sweet relationship between Frog and Toad. If you haven’t read any of the books in this series yet, you definitely should. You and your child are sure to love them too.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Fine White Dust

How much do you have to give up to find yourself?When Pete first sets eyes on the Man, he’s convinced he’s an ax murderer. But at the revival meeting, Pete discovers that the Man is actually a savior of souls, and Pete has been waiting all his life to be saved.

It’s not something Pete’s parents can understand. Certainly his best friend, Rufus, an avowed atheist, doesn’t understand. But Pete knows he can’t imagine life without the Man. So when the Man invites Pete to join him on his mission, how can Pete say no — even if it means leaving behind everything he’s ever loved?

This is another Newbery book that was just weird. I’m not a fan of this story, which is about a boy who falls under the spell of an itinerant gospel preacher. I kept wanting to grab Pete by the shoulders and yell at him, “This is not what religion is about!!” It’s just creepy to think about the preacher wanting to spend so much time with this little boy and eventually trying to convince him to leave town and join him in his preaching. *shudders*

Rating: Meh

Incident at Hawk’s Hill

Six-year-old Ben is very small for his age, and gets along better with animals than people. One June day in 1870, Ben wanders away from his home on Hawk’s Hill and disappears into the waving prairie grass. This is the story of how a shy, lonely boy survives for months in the wilds and forges a bond with a female badger.

This is the story of Ben, a six year old who relates more to animals than to humans, spending an entire summer with a badger. You all know how I feel about animal stories (in general, I hate them), and this book is exactly why. I don’t pick up books to read about how a badger feels about life. If the animals don’t talk, I don’t care. If you do like animals or survival stories, you might enjoy this book. It just wasn’t for me.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Reviews: 1940

Unfortunately, the 1940 Newbery books were not really my favorites. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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It’s time for another Newbery roundup! This time I’m retroactively reviewing the 1940 Newbery books that I read as a child. And I’m sorry to say there were no real winners from that year. (All summaries via Goodreads.com.)

Medal Winner: Daniel Boone

Daniel Boone was a farmer who couldn’t stay put. Something was always pulling him westward into new and mysterious lands, and when this pull got so strong that he could no longer ignore it, and his wife and children could not persuade him to stay, he just went, with his toes pointing into the West and his eyes glued to the hills.

As a child, I knew a fair amount about Daniel Boone. He lived an interesting life full of adventure, and any kid who enjoys adventure stories is likely to enjoy learning about Daniel Boone’s life. Still, I found this book just okay. It definitely shows its age, and despite the interesting material, it couldn’t keep my attention for long.

Rating: Meh

Runner of the Mountain Tops: The Life of Louis Agassiz

Runner of the Mountain Tops: The Life of Louis Agassiz is a children’s biography of the nineteenth-century paleontologist and natural scientist Louis Agassiz by Mabel Robinson. It tells his life story from his boyhood in Switzerland to his professorship at Harvard.

When I read this book as a kid, I found it pretty awful. It was dry and boring, as many children’s biographies were at the time. Unless for some reason your child has a fascination with Louis Agassiz (I don’t know any children who do), I’d skip this book.

Rating: Skip This One

By the Shores of Silver Lake

Laura and her family are head to the Dakota Territory for a chance to own their own land–and stop moving. The new town of De Smet is filling up with settlers lured west by the promise of free land, and the Ingalls family must do whatever it takes too defend their claim.

If you enjoy the Little House on the Prairie series, I don’t need to tell you about this book. I enjoyed it when I read it, but it kind of blurs together with all the other books in the series. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that these books are classics for a reason–if you or your kids haven’t read them yet, give them a shot!

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Mysterious Children’s Fiction

I'm sharing my recent mysterious children's fiction reads, including books from Sharon Creech and Peter Abrahams. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Down the Rabbit Hole

Ingrid is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or at least her shoes are. And getting them back will mean getting tangled up in a murder investigation as complicated as the mysteries solved by her idol, Sherlock Holmes. With soccer practice, schoolwork, and the lead role in her town’s production of Alice in Wonderland, Ingrid is swamped. But as things in Echo Falls keep getting curiouser and curiouser, Ingrid realizes she must solve the murder on her own — before it’s too late! (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This is a fun, kind of dark murder mystery for MG readers. It’s pretty obvious that this is Abrahams’ first exploration of children’s fiction; some of the things Ingrid does are kind of unrealistic for a kid her age. Still, I enjoyed following Ingrid as she gets in over her head and tries to solve a murder without implicating herself.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Pleasing the Ghost

As nine-year-old Dennis confronts the ghost of his uncle Arvie, Arvie’s eccentric antics and wonderful wordplay keep the reader laughing. But at its tender heart, the story reveals the holes left in our lives when we lose the ones we love. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I never thought I’d dislike a book by Sharon Creech! She has written some of my favorite books of all time, but Pleasing the Ghost just didn’t do it for me. I think I’m drawn more toward Creech’s MG fiction, rather than her children’s fiction. Still, I found this book cute, and small children will probably still enjoy it.

Rating: Meh

Newbery Roundup: January 2017

The latest Newbery books, both new and old, that I've read over the past couple of months. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

In the Valley of Fruitless Mountain, a young girl named Minli spends her days working hard in the fields and her nights listening to her father spin fantastic tales about the Jade Dragon and the Old Man of the Moon. Minli’s mother, tired of their poor life, chides him for filling her head with nonsense. But Minli believes these enchanting stories and embarks on an extraordinary journey to find the Old Man of the Moon and ask him how her family can change their fortune. She encounters an assorted cast of characters and magical creatures along the way, including a dragon who accompanies her on her quest.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon was so lovely! Minli’s journey to find the Old Man of the Moon was such a fun way to string together the Chinese folk stories that author Grace Lin grew up reading. Plus there is beautiful full color art. This is a quick read that should be on your (or your child’s) TBR list.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Tangle-Coated Horse

Ella Young was born in 1867 in the little village of Feenagh, County Antrim. “From childhood I heard tales of ghosts, banshees, haunted castles, mischievous and friendly sprites, snatches of ballads, and political arguments….It was not until I came to Dublin and met Standish O’Grady, A.E., and Kuna Meyer that I realized what a heritage waited for me in Celtic literature. I read every translation I could get, learned Irish, and betook myself to Gaelic Ireland where, by turf fires, I could hear the poems of the Fianna recited by folk who had heard the faery music and danced in faery circles…”

This is one of the old, out of print Honor books that I’ve ordered through interlibrary loan. I’m finding that most of the books that fall into that category are short story collections, which I’m not a big fan of (as you might remember). This one, a collection of tales about ancient Ireland and the magical creatures that lived there, is not too bad, but I found myself getting bored much of the time. I have a feeling your kids will probably feel the same way about it.

Rating: Meh

Vaino

Tales and legends from Finland form the background to this story of a modern Finnish boy who is a student during the Finnish Revolution of World War I that freed that country from oppressive Russian rule.

Vaino was surprisingly enjoyable. Expecting another short story collection (see above), I was glad to find that the majority of this book consists of historical fiction focused on Finland in the early 20th century. There are short stories here about the fictional creatures and gods that populated ancient Finland (of course there are), but they are interspersed with the real-life events of the Finnish revolution during WWI and the adventures of Vaino, a young Finnish boy who gets caught up in these events. The intertwining of these two threads made this book work.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

In the Beginning

A thought-provoking collection of twenty-five stories that reflect the wonder and glory of the origins of the world and humankind. With commentary by the author.

You know I love Virginia Hamilton. This Newbery book of hers, In the Beginning, retells many of the world’s creation stories. The book is filled with great illustrations and explanations of these myths, including the various types of creation stories. I didn’t find this book as compelling as the last Virginia Hamilton I read, but I certainly don’t regret reading it.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Year of Billy Miller

When Billy Miller has a mishap at the statue of the Jolly Green Giant at the end of summer vacation, he ends up with a big lump on his head. What a way to start second grade, with a lump on your head! As the year goes by, though, Billy figures out how to navigate elementary school, how to appreciate his little sister, and how to be a more grown up and responsible member of the family and a help to his busy working mom and stay-at-home dad.

If you’ve read as many Newbery books as I have, you start to realize that there are major themes for the different time periods in which they’ve given the award. As mentioned above, many of the early Newbery books are collections of myths and short stories, while the 70s and 80s brought a glut of historical fiction. The most recent decade or so has been marked by unique, easy-to-read writing styles and a branching out from the topics of previous years.

The Year of Billy Miller, a Newbery honor book from 2014, fits nicely into that description. It’s a sweet story about a wonderful, ordinary second grade year. In four consecutive sections, seven-year-old Billy learns how to get along with his teacher, his mother, his sister, and his father. Your second grader will almost certainly enjoy this book.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Classic Book Reviews: Uncle Tom’s Cabin + The Beautiful and Damned

I continue my adventures in reading the classics with Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Beautiful and Damned. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m continuing my journey of reading the classics that have somehow escaped me (you can read previous posts here and here). Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Beautiful and Damned were next on my list, simply because I happened to have audio book versions of each. (I admit to listening to each of them on 2x speed and using my 30 minute commute to force myself to listen to them when they got dry and boring.) Still, it’s easy to see how each of these books became classics, and I’m glad I read them.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

First published in 1852, this book follows the story of several slaves and the white people who surround them. When Mr. Shelby, the slave owner, finds himself in debt, he has to sell two of his favorite slaves–kind, patient Tom and the young child of Eliza. Eliza decides to run away with her child, while Tom agrees to be sold downriver. We follow both characters, along with the masters and fellow slaves they encounter on their travels.

I was not expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. It is powerful and surprisingly modern for the time it was written. It’s easy to see why Abraham Lincoln reportedly cited it as the cause of the Civil War. Of course, there is a fair amount of racism still present (it was written in the 1850s, after all), and there is a strong case of White Savior Complex and a large group of simple, pure-hearted slaves, but I was amazed at what a case Stowe built for ending slavery. She focused on how deeply these mothers felt the loss of their children, husbands the loss of their wives, and often directs her narrative voice at the audience, urging them to think about how they would feel in similar circumstances. Stowe clearly had a deep Christian faith, as did many of her readers at the time, and she gathers evidence for how unchristian it is to own slaves. She even attacks those who justify slavery by describing how kind they are to their own slaves and how lost these people would be without guidance–Stowe rightly points out that everyone desires freedom above practically all else and how harmful it is to be even a kindly master.

If you can get past the historical racism inherent to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the length which at times feels dry, you should read this book. I’m glad I did, even though I doubt I’ll pick it up again.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Beautiful and Damned

Embellished with the author’s lyrical prose, here is the story of Harvard-educated, aspiring aesthete Anthony Patch and his beautiful wife, Gloria. As they await the inheritance of his grandfather’s fortune, their reckless marriage sways under the influence of alcohol and avarice. A devastating look at the nouveau riche and New York nightlife, as well as the ruinous effects of wild ambition, The Beautiful and the Damned achieved stature as one of Fitzgerald’s most accomplished novels.

Fitzgerald is great at presenting a depressing, dark view of human nature, and that’s exactly what he does in The Beautiful and Damned. Anthony and Gloria selfishly mistreat each other and fall into straits as they can’t control their spending/drinking/vanity. It’s painful to see them do so much harm to themselves and each other, although it is of course very well written. If you’ve read The Great Gatsby, you’ll know what to expect from this book.

Rating: Meh

Newbery Roundup: November

Quick reviews of my latest Newbery reads, both recent and backlist. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’ve been working my way through several more Newbery books, both new and old, this month. Surprisingly, all of them were enjoyable, and a couple were very good!

Splendors and Glooms

The master puppeteer, Gaspare Grisini, is so expert at manipulating his stringed puppets that they appear alive. Clara Wintermute, the only child of a wealthy doctor, is spellbound by Grisini’s act and invites him to entertain at her birthday party. Seeing his chance to make a fortune, Grisini accepts and makes a splendidly gaudy entrance with caravan, puppets, and his two orphaned assistants.

Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are dazzled by the Wintermute home. Clara seems to have everything they lack — adoring parents, warmth, and plenty to eat. In fact, Clara’s life is shadowed by grief, guilt, and secrets. When Clara vanishes that night, suspicion of kidnapping falls upon the puppeteer and, by association, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book is just fun children’s fiction. It’s a dark story with lots of magic. The kids are likable characters, and the inner thoughts of each of the three (pampered but overprotected Clara, hardworking Lizzie Rose, and frightened, angry Parsefall) are interesting to follow.

If you or your kids are looking for a magical story with a bit of an edge, you couldn’t do much better than Splendors and Glooms.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Inside Out & Back Again

For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food . . . and the strength of her very own family. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Inside Out & Back Again is a novel told in free verse poetry. It depicts the author’s fictionalized experiences of moving to Alabama after the Vietnam War, and it is by turns heartwarming and saddening. The first segment of the book describes Hà’s life in Vietnam with all the foods and traditions that she loves. But after the Vietnam War forces Hà and her family to move to the United States, Hà finds herself struggling to learn a new language, eat new foods, and meet people who aren’t excited to see a different face.

This is a book that not only teaches about a certain era of our world’s recent history, but also has important applications in our world today. In a time of worldwide upheaval with millions of refugees fleeing their home countries, Inside Out & Back Again can offer middle grade kids a new perspective on the struggles and joys that many immigrants face.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Her Stories

In the tradition of Hamilton’s The People Could Fly and In the Beginning, a dramatic new collection of 25 compelling tales from the female African American storytelling tradition. Each story focuses on the role of women–both real and fantastic–and their particular strengths, joys and sorrows. Full-color illustrations. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This is probably my favorite book in this whole roundup, and it’s not even a Newbery book (Virginia Hamilton is a multiple-time Newbery author, but this book is not one of those Newbery books). Her Stories is a book of lovely stories and illustrations. It includes African, African-American, and Creole folk tales and fairy tales, along with a few nonfiction bios, all focused on female protagonists. And I love the fact that each of the tales includes helpful explanatory notes which describe the origins of the story and how it ties into that culture’s storytelling tradition.

If you want to add diversity to your child’s bookshelf, you could hardly do better than this collection of stories about African and African American women. The stories themselves are wonderful, the illustrations are gorgeous, and the short story format makes it easy to read one or two with your child before bed. I can’t recommend this not-quite-Newbery book enough.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Little Blacknose

A fictional history of railroading, as told by the first steam engine. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Little Blacknose is a short story for young children about the first steam engine in the United States. The little engine makes its journeys to Schenectady and gradually meets many other engines throughout his career.

Reading this as an adult was not super enjoyable; it’s just too simple and even silly. If your young child is really into trains, though, this might make a good read-aloud book (just be sure to skip the few racist bits).

Rating: Meh

The Crossover

“With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I’m delivering,” announces dread-locked 12-year old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother Jordan are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he’s got mad beats, too, that tell his family’s story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood.

Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story’s heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I’m not a big fan of poetry (another recent Newbery book, Brown Girl Dreaming, is a notable exception), but this book was good. Josh and his twin brother JB deal with basketball, girls, tragedy, and growing up through Josh’s rhymes.

Crossover is a fun book with some surprisingly dark themes. Definitely recommended for middle grade readers.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

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