Newbery Reviews: 1941

Mini reviews of the 1941 Newbery books. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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It has been a while since I did a post reviewing the Newbery books I read as a kid. So today I’m reviewing the 1941 Newbery books that I’ve already read. (Back to more recent reads next week!) [All summaries via Goodreads.com]

Medal Winner: Call it Courage

Maftu was afraid of the sea. It had taken his mother when he was a baby, and it seemed to him that the sea gods sought vengeance at having been cheated of Mafatu. So, though he was the son of the Great Chief of Hikueru, a race of Polynesians who worshipped courage, and he was named Stout Heart, he feared and avoided tha sea, till everyone branded him a coward. When he could no longer bear their taunts and jibes, he determined to conquer that fear or be conquered– so he went off in his canoe, alone except for his little dog and pet albatross. A storm gave him his first challenge. Then days on a desert island found him resourceful beyond his own expectation. This is the story of how his courage grew and how he finally returned home. This is a legend. It happened many years ago, but even today the people of Hikueru sing this story and tell it over their evening fires.

This is one of two books that Armstrong Sperry won a Newbery prize for (this one the medal, the other an honor award). Both books are focused on sailing and exploration, topics which don’t generally interest me. I thought this was pretty good when I read it as a child, but I feel no need to go back and read it again.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Blue Willow

To Janey Larkin, the blue willow plate was the most beautiful thing in her life, a symbol of the home she could only dimly remember. Now that her father was an itinerant worker, Janey didn’t have a home she could call her own or any real friends, as her family had to keep moving, following the crops from farm to farm. Someday, Janey promised the willow plate, with its picture of a real house, her family would once again be able to set down roots in a community.

Blue Willow is an important fictional account of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and has been called The Grapes of Wrath for children.

This is one of those books that I’d like to read again someday. I remember enjoying this book, the rustic feeling that pervaded it. Blue Willow is the kind of book that made me like historical fiction so much. Through Janey’s life, we get a glimpse at life during the Great Depression, but it never actually becomes depressing (at least, as far as I remember).

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Long Winter

The town of De Smet is hit with terrible, howling blizzards and Laura and her family must ration their food and coal. When the supply train doesn’t arrive, Almanzo Wilder and his brother realize something must be done. They begin an impossible journey in search of provisions, before it’s too late.

In case you weren’t aware, this book is another installation of the Little House on the Prairie series.  I remember liking this book pretty well, just as I did with most of the Little House books, but this one was never my favorite in the series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Classics Roundup, October 2017

Mini reviews of the classics I've been reading lately. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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As you might remember, one of my reading goals this year is to read some of the classics I’ve missed out on along the way. Some of these I’m genuinely excited to read; others are just ones I feel like I should read. Unfortunately, most of the books in this roundup fall into the latter category. (Summaries via Goodreads.com)

Candide

Brought up in the household of a powerful Baron, Candide is an open-minded young man, whose tutor, Pangloss, has instilled in him the belief that ‘all is for the best’. But when his love for the Baron’s rosy-cheeked daughter is discovered, Candide is cast out to make his own way in the world.

And so he and his various companions begin a breathless tour of Europe, South America and Asia, as an outrageous series of disasters befall them – earthquakes, syphilis, a brush with the Inquisition, murder – sorely testing the young hero’s optimism.

I didn’t enjoy this novella. I understand it’s a satire on optimism vs. pessimism, but I just don’t like satire. Sorry, Candide fans. On the bright side, Candide is very short, so at least I didn’t give up a lot of time to finish it.

Rating: Meh

Bartleby the Scrivener

Academics hail it as the beginning of modernism, but to readers around the world—even those daunted by Moby-Dick—Bartleby the Scrivener is simply one of the most absorbing and moving novellas ever. Set in the mid-19th century on New York City’s Wall Street, it was also, perhaps, Herman Melville’s most prescient story: what if a young man caught up in the rat race of commerce finally just said, “I would prefer not to”?

This Melville novella is certainly more interesting than Moby Dick, a book I attempted and DNF’ed about halfway through. The main character says, “I would prefer not to” about everything in his life, and *spoiler* eventually dies in poverty because he has given up on life. It’s interesting to think about, but this is not a book that you’ll feel invested in.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Lady Susan

Beautiful, flirtatious, and recently widowed, Lady Susan Vernon seeks an advantageous second marriage for herself, while attempting to push her daughter into a dismal match. A magnificently crafted novel of Regency manners and mores that will delight Austen enthusiasts with its wit and elegant expression.

Now this (no surprise) I loved! If you’ve seen and enjoyed the recent movie based on this book, I’m happy to report that the book is very similar to the movie. This is Jane Austen’s lovely writing in a small package. Highly recommended if you like Jane Austen or epistolary novels in general.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Their Eyes Were Watching God

When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds …

I read this book as a teenager, and the only thing I remembered from it was greatly disliking the written dialect (something I still generally dislike). So I decided I should read it again as an adult. I definitely got more out of it this time–Janie’s inner journey, through the three husbands she had, to becoming her own woman who doesn’t allow others to stifle her is the real focus of the book–but it’s still not one of my favorites. (As a side note, I’m very glad I finished reading this book after Hurricane Irma hit. A devastating hurricane produces the climax of this book, and it was crazy reading about the destruction of all the small Florida towns that are near where we live!)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Othello

In Othello, Shakespeare creates a powerful drama of a marriage that begins with fascination (between the exotic Moor Othello and the Venetian lady Desdemona), with elopement, and with intense mutual devotion and that ends precipitately with jealous rage and violent deaths.

Ugh. (Sorry, Shakespeare fans.) I don’t like tragedies much, and as someone who hasn’t really studied Shakespeare, I found a lot of this hard to understand. I’d much rather watch a Shakespeare play than read one, as I always seem to get a lot more out of it when I have more context. I’m glad I read Othello, but I’m also glad I’m done reading it.

Rating: Meh

Nonfiction that Will Make You Think

Quick reviews of the latest nonfiction I've read that will make you think. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I read a weird hodgepodge of nonfiction, usually including memoirs, history, and personal development. Today’s nonfiction revolves around the theme of books that will make you think, whether about religion, feminism, or adoption. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Evolving in Monkey Town

Rachel recounts growing up in a culture obsessed with apologetics, struggling as her own faith unraveled one unexpected question at a time.

In order for her faith to survive, Rachel realizes, it must adapt to change and evolve. Using as an illustration her own spiritual journey from certainty to doubt to faith, Evans challenges you to disentangle your faith from false fundamentals and to trust in a God who is big enough to handle your tough questions.

As I mentioned in my review of Searching for Sunday, I find reading Rachel Held Evans’s writing kind of surreal. This book is especially so, as she talks specifically about her time at Bryan College, my alma mater, taking worldview classes and talking about the same issues that we still discussed during my time at Bryan. Additionally, I continue to find that Rachel’s journey in her faith mirrors mine in certain aspects, even if I don’t always come to the same conclusions she does. Her thoughts on Christianity, faith, apologetics, and having all the answers were really helpful to me, and I think they would be to anyone who has struggled with the hard questions of the Christian faith and had their questions ignored or pushed away.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Dear Ijeawele

A few years ago, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received a letter from a dear friend from childhood, asking her how to raise her baby girl as a feminist. Dear Ijeawele is Adichie’s letter of response.

Here are fifteen invaluable suggestions–compelling, direct, wryly funny, and perceptive–for how to empower a daughter to become a strong, independent woman. From encouraging her to choose a helicopter, and not only a doll, as a toy if she so desires; having open conversations with her about clothes, makeup, and sexuality; debunking the myth that women are somehow biologically arranged to be in the kitchen making dinner, and that men can “allow” women to have full careers, Dear Ijeawele goes right to the heart of sexual politics in the twenty-first century. It will start a new and urgently needed conversation about what it really means to be a woman today.

Adichie‘s latest book (if you can call it that–it reads like a long essay) features suggestions on raising a child as a feminist. I liked the suggestions and agreed with most of them, but I was already familiar with and planning to use most of them. If you’re looking for a quick primer on raising children as feminists, this might be the book for you. But if you’re already well versed on feminism and stocked up with theories on raising children, you might be able to skip this one.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption

Prior to 1990, fewer than 5% of domestic infant adoptions were open. In 2011, 90% or more of adoption agencies are recommending open adoption. Yet these agencies do not often or adequately prepare either adopting parents or birth parents for the road ahead of them! The adult parties in open adoptions are left floundering. There are many resources on why to do open adoption, but what about how? Open adoption isn’t just something parents do when they exchange photos, send emails, share a visit. It’s a lifestyle that may intrude at times, be difficult or inconvenient at other times. Tensions can arise even in the best of situations. But knowing how to handle these situations and how to continue to make arrangements work for the children involved is paramount.

The Open-Hearted Way offers a powerful look at how we can use open adoption for raising a whole child. As someone who looks forward to adopting at some point in the future, I’m always looking for more information, more ideas, better ways of making adoption work. This book filled that need for me. Lori and Crystal, an adoptive mother and a birth mother in an open adoption, share their two sides of the adoption story and give helpful tips on how to make open adoption work for both sets of parents, and most importantly for the child.

If you’ve been interested in adoption and felt too afraid to look at open adoption, please read this book! It will answer your concerns and questions with warm, practical, clear-eyed but optimistic advice.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Newbery Roundup, October 2017

The latest roundup of Newbery books I've read, both new and old. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Not only have I been working through the classic Newbery books lately, but I’ve also found a few more recent Newbery books in the archives that I read months (or years) ago and never reviewed (oops!). So in today’s Newbery roundup, you’ll find mini reviews of books from recent years and also some of the oldest honor books. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Brown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson, one of today’s finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

I love Jacqueline Woodson’s writing style, and this book, which shares Woodson’s own childhood in free verse form, is no exception. It’s a lovely, quick read that will stay with you even if you don’t generally like poetry.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Daughter of the Seine

This is a fictionalized biography of the French Revolutionary patriot and writer Jeanne Manon Roland de la Platiere (1754-1793), who became known simply by Madame Roland. She was the daughter of a Paris engraver who encouraged his daughter’s interest in music, painting, and literature. As a young girl, she told to her grand-mother: “I’ll call myself daughter of the Seine,” and as an adult she often said that the river was part of her soul. As a young woman she became interested in the radical ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau and the movement for equality. She shared these enthusiasms with her husband, whom she married in 1780. After the outbreak of the Revolution, she formed a salon of followers, who late became known as the Girondists. Under the constitutional monarchy, her husband became minister of the interior, a post he held after the monarchy was overthrown. Madame Roland both directed her husband’s career and influenced the important politicians of the period.

As with most of the historical fiction from this era of Newbery books, it’s hard to believe that kids would ever have enjoyed reading A Daughter of the Seine. This book is not as dry as others I’ve read, but it’s still pretty forgettable (and surprisingly long). I did learn some new things about this interesting historical figure, and I appreciated that the focus of this book is a woman, but I still wouldn’t really recommend it for modern-day readers.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Three Times Lucky

Rising sixth grader Miss Moses LoBeau lives in the small town of Tupelo Landing, NC, where everyone’s business is fair game and no secret is sacred. She washed ashore in a hurricane eleven years ago, and she’s been making waves ever since. Although Mo hopes someday to find her “upstream mother,” she’s found a home with the Colonel–a café owner with a forgotten past of his own–and Miss Lana, the fabulous café hostess. She will protect those she loves with every bit of her strong will and tough attitude. So when a lawman comes to town asking about a murder, Mo and her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, set out to uncover the truth in hopes of saving the only family Mo has ever known.

Full of wisdom, humor, and grit, this timeless yarn will melt the heart of even the sternest Yankee.

This book is wonderful! If you like small-town, Southern characters in the style of Lucky Strikes or even A Year Down Yonder, you’ll enjoy this book. There is a sequel which I still haven’t read, but I definitely plan to.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Dark Star of Itza

The story of a Mayan princess who lived at the time the ancient city of Chichen Itza fell under Toltec rule.

Why is this book so obsessed with adult themes (war, jealous love, and human sacrifices among them)? It’s a bit jarring in a children’s book. Despite that, I did like the character of Nicte, a princess and the daughter of the high priest in the ancient Mayan civilization. Like A Daughter of the Seine, this is one of the less offensive and dry historical fiction books from this period in Newbery history.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Heart of a Samurai

In 1841, a Japanese fishing vessel sinks. Its crew is forced to swim to a small, unknown island, where they are rescued by a passing American ship. Japan’s borders remain closed to all Western nations, so the crew sets off to America, learning English on the way.

Manjiro, a fourteen-year-old boy, is curious and eager to learn everything he can about this new culture. Eventually the captain adopts Manjiro and takes him to his home in New England. The boy lives for some time in New England, and then heads to San Francisco to pan for gold. After many years, he makes it back to Japan, only to be imprisoned as an outsider. With his hard-won knowledge of the West, Manjiro is in a unique position to persuade the shogun to ease open the boundaries around Japan; he may even achieve his unlikely dream of becoming a samurai.

This is an interesting fictionalized account of Manjiro, a Japanese boy who helped unite the US and Japan, ending Japan’s 250 years of isolation. Although I was slightly familiar with the story of Manjiro before reading this book, I still found myself feeling like these events couldn’t possibly have occurred–but they did! The author does a great job of fleshing out the actual historical events (including some of Manjiro’s own words from his letters and writings) with the thoughts and feelings a young man might have had. This book is a well-written, fascinating account of historical events that I actually would recommend for modern-day readers, whether children or adults.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Queer Person

Relates the experiences of an outcast deaf-mute Indian boy as he grows to adulthood and eventually becomes a great leader.

Here we go again… I find it very questionable that this white man (who, granted, seems to have spent a fair amount of time working with Native American tribes) has taken it upon himself to write about being a deaf Native American. In addition, the story (young deaf boy struggles to find his place in his tribe, finds out he has royal blood, magically becomes able to hear, wins the heart of the princess) is trite. I can’t really recommend this one.

Rating: Meh

The Great Fire

The Great Fire of 1871 was one of most colossal disasters in American history. Overnight, the flourshing city of Chicago was transformed into a smoldering wasteland. The damage was so profound that few people believed the city could ever rise again.

By weaving personal accounts of actual survivors together with the carefully researched history of Chicago and the disaster, Jim Murphy constructs a riveting narrative that recreates the event with drama and immediacy. And finally, he reveals how, even in a time of deepest dispair, the human spirit triumphed, as the people of Chicago found the courage and strength to build their city once again.

I love this kind of historical book, filled with photos and first-hand accounts. Murphy offers a historical view of the great fire in Chicago, including its causes, the destruction it caused, and the fallout. He also takes it upon himself to remind readers that the blame which fell on the poor, the immigrants, and the women who lived in the city was a product of its time and not an accurate reflection of what happened. This is fascinating reading, whether you’re a kid or an adult. (And if you like this book, you might also enjoy Jim Murphy’s other Newbery book, An American Plague.)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

My Latest MG and YA Reads, September 2017

The latest middle grades and YA books on my reading list. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I haven’t been reading much YA recently (I’m reading through a stockpile of adult fiction and nonfiction), but what I have read lately has been weird and wonderful. If you like quirky characters and ridiculous plots, these books are for you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Greetings from Witness Protection!

*Note: I received a copy of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.

Nicki Demere is an orphan and a pickpocket. She also happens to be the U.S. Marshals’ best bet to keep a family alive. . . .

The marshals are looking for the perfect girl to join a mother, father, and son on the run from the nation’s most notorious criminals. After all, the bad guys are searching for a family with one kid, not two, and adding a streetwise girl who knows a little something about hiding things may be just what the marshals need.

Nicki swears she can keep the Trevor family safe, but to do so she’ll have to dodge hitmen, cyberbullies, and the specter of standardized testing, all while maintaining her marshal-mandated B-minus average. As she barely balances the responsibilities of her new identity, Nicki learns that the biggest threats to her family’s security might not lurk on the road from New York to North Carolina, but rather in her own past.

Foster care kid Nicki struggles with kleptomania and and just wants her dad to get out of jail and take her home, away from the many failed foster homes she has lived in. But then the U.S. Marshals give her a chance to change her life: She must find a place in a family who is being put into witness protection. Nicki will strengthen their cover; the family will provide Nicki with a home. But, of course, things don’t work out that neatly…

Despite a totally unbelievable premise, this is a really fun and surprisingly sweet book. Nicki and her new family have issues as they reconcile themselves to a new life, and these issues still stand out against the backdrop of mobsters and false identities. The characters are sweet and relatable, and I think that’s what keeps this book from becoming ridiculous.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Small Steps

Two years after being released from Camp Green Lake, Armpit is home in Austin, Texas, trying to turn his life around. But it’s hard when you have a record, and everyone expects the worst from you. The only person who believes in him is Ginny, his 10-year old disabled neighbor. Together, they are learning to take small steps. And he seems to be on the right path, until X-Ray, a buddy from Camp Green Lake, comes up with a get-rich-quick scheme. This leads to a chance encounter with teen pop sensation, Kaira DeLeon, and suddenly his life spins out of control, with only one thing for certain. He’ll never be the same again.

Holes was one of my favorite books as a kid, and this is the follow up to that Newbery book. For Armpit, now known by his given name of Theodore, life after Camp Green Lake is filled with hard work (digging, of course) and giving reassurance to his paranoid parents. But when he agrees to take his disabled neighbor Ginny to a concert and his old friend X-Ray convinces him to scalp some tickets, his life is turned upside down again.

Theodore is a sympathetic character, and Sacher doesn’t shy away from the reality that he is drawn back to criminal activity through his friend’s prodding. (There is a lot in this book that isn’t very realistic, but that’s Louis Sacher for you!) If you liked Holes and don’t mind taking some leaps of faith in the plot, you should read Small Steps.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.

Although gifted with a superbly logical brain, for fifteen-year-old Christopher everyday interactions and admonishments have little meaning. He lives on patterns, rules, and a diagram kept in his pocket. Then one day, a neighbor’s dog, Wellington, is killed and his carefully constructive universe is threatened. Christopher sets out to solve the murder in the style of his favourite (logical) detective, Sherlock Holmes. What follows makes for a novel that is funny, poignant and fascinating in its portrayal of a person whose curse and blessing are a mind that perceives the world entirely literally.

This well-known book offers a look into an autistic boy’s life by an author who has spent time working with autistic people. It has a unique format (filled with drawings, graphs, etc.), a lot of swearing, and kind of a crazy plot (that seems to be a theme with today’s roundup of books!). I did enjoy the format, and the story kept me engaged, but I disliked pretty much all of the characters. I would also be glad to see more novels involving autism written by people who are autistic, rather than people like Haddon who have only spent time with autistic people.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Secret of Platform 13

A forgotten door on an abandoned railway platform is the entrance to a magical kingdom–an island where humans live happily with feys, mermaids, ogres, and other wonderful creatures. Carefully hidden from the world, the Island is only accessible when the door opens for nine days every nine years. A lot can go wrong in nine days. When the beastly Mrs. Trottle kidnaps the prince of the Island, it’s up to a strange band of rescuers to save him. But can an ogre, a hag, a wizard, and a fey really troop around London unnoticed?

The Secret of Platform 13 is a really cute, fun story about a group of misfits from a magical island trying to retrieve their prince from our world. Full of hilarious misunderstandings, mistaken identity, and magic, this is a great read for anyone who likes lighthearted fantasy.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

ARC: Artemis

Andy Weir's latest book, Artemis, is a great space heist book and a great follow up to The Martian. #spon | Book review by NewberyandBeyond.com
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*Note: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

Jazz Bashara is a criminal.

Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you’re not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you’ve got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent.

Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she’s stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

I’m one of the many people who greatly enjoyed Andy Weir’s The Martian, despite my lack of interest in sci fi. Even if you have little or no knowledge about space or science, the book tells an engaging story with interesting characters. Artemis is the same.

Jazz is a petty criminal who gets caught up in a job that’s over her head, and she has to call in every favor she can just to stay alive. She’s funny and flawed, and above all, she’s determined not to be exiled from the moon–the only real home she’s ever known. I loved Jazz’s character and her motley collection of friends (and enemies).

The best words I can use to describe the plot of Artemis are MOON HEIST. That’s not totally accurate, but that’s certainly the feel I got from the story. Again, I’m no scientist, so I have no idea if the technical details of the plot make sense, but even if they don’t, the fast-paced plot kept me engaged the whole time. Who doesn’t want to read about a moon heist?

There is a lot of swearing in this book, if that kind of thing bothers you, and Artemis has much more of a sci fi feel than The Martian did. Still, even though science fiction isn’t really my thing, I enjoyed this book. If you liked Andy Weir’s writing style in The Martian, you might like it too.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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

An Exploration of Christian Books

Today's post takes a deep dive into the Christian books I've been poring over recently. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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In an attempt to better understand where I am in my faith and to reconcile the things I believe about Christ with the things I see many Christians doing and saying, I’ve been drowning myself in books about the Bible, modern Christianity, and Christianity in the US in particular. This post is meant to give you a taste of some of the most interesting and influential books I’ve read on this topic, so if you’re not into reading about Christian books, today’s post is not for you. But if you are also interested in exploring diverse views on faith, read on! I have some amazing books to share with you. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

Biblical scholars Brandon O’Brien and Randy Richards shed light on the ways that Western readers often misunderstand the cultural dynamics of the Bible. They identify nine key areas where modern Westerners have significantly different assumptions about what might be going on in a text. Drawing on their own crosscultural experience in global mission, O’Brien and Richards show how better self-awareness and understanding of cultural differences in language, time and social mores allow us to see the Bible in fresh and unexpected ways. Getting beyond our own cultural assumptions is increasingly important for being Christians in our interconnected and globalized world. Learn to read Scripture as a member of the global body of Christ.

If you’re only looking for the highlights, this is one of my two “must reads” on this list. (I’ll let you know when we get to the other!) Misreading Scripture illustrates the “things that go without saying” in our own Western culture, in non-Western cultures around the world, and in biblical cultures, and explains how that affects our reading of the Bible. This book has made a powerful difference in the way I read the Bible, especially the stories and parables that are so familiar to those of us who grew up in the church. The book is not meant to explain every part of the Bible (although I sometimes wished it would!) but rather to give modern, Western readers a framework for understanding Scripture in the way it would have been understood by its original readers.

In college I did some cross-cultural studies in preparation for time spent overseas, so you would think I would be able to make the leap concerning the shame/guilt dichotomy or the individualist/collectivist societal differences on my own, but no, I was not. Understanding how these very different, deeply ingrained ways of being and thinking change the way Western readers understand verses written for a collectivist society is one of the most powerful things I took away from this book. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry; the authors do a great job of explaining these concepts. Because the authors have both spent time living, working, and ministering in cultures very different from the US, they have first-hand accounts and stories to illustrate their points.

If you’re serious about studying and understanding the Bible and are concerned that you’re missing something because of our very different culture, you must read this book. This book is compulsively readable (at least it was for me) and steers clear of technical jargon that theological books often fall into, so whether you have a ministerial degree or are simply trying to learn how to read the Bible better, you will get something out of Misreading Scripture. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Everything Must Change

How do the life and teachings of Jesus address the most critical global problems in our world today?

In “Everything Must Change, “you will accompany Brian around the world on a search for answers. Along the way you’ll experience intrigue, alarm, challenge, insight, and hope. You’ll get a fresh and provocative vision of Jesus and his teachings. And you’ll see how his core message can infuse us with purpose and passion to address the economic, environmental, military, political, and social dysfunctions that have overtaken our world.

This book offers an interesting look at Jesus as a political figure. The author talks about the “peace insurgency” and how Jesus thinks about social justice, global warming, violence, and other hot button issues that we normally think of as political. I certainly didn’t agree with all of his theology (in fact, I found this book the most theologically questionable of the group), but I wish more of the church would read his conclusions.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Searching for Sunday

Like millions of her millennial peers, Rachel Held Evans didn’t want to go to church anymore. The hypocrisy, the politics, the gargantuan building budgets, the scandals–church culture seemed so far removed from Jesus. Yet, despite her cynicism and misgivings, something kept drawing her back to Church. And so she set out on a journey to understand Church and to find her place in it.

Centered around seven sacraments, Evans’ quest takes readers through a liturgical year with stories about baptism, communion, confirmation, confession, marriage, vocation, and death that are funny, heartbreaking, and sharply honest.

Reading this book was a bit surreal for me. I’ve never met Rachel Held Evans, but her father was a professor of mine in college, and I know almost every school and church in the tiny town that Rachel grew up in. I felt like Rachel’s journey–her frustration with the church over social and political issues–was very close to mine. As with most of these books, I don’t agree with all of Rachel’s viewpoints, but I resonated deeply with her experiences. This book is more of a memoir than most of the other books on this list, but I think it could be very helpful if you are also feeling the disconnect between your faith and your social beliefs. It certainly made me feel less alone.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Reconciliation Blues

What is the state of racial reconciliation in evangelical churches today? Are we truly united? In Reconciliation Blues journalist Edward Gilbreath gives an insightful, honest picture of both the history and the present state of racial reconciliation in evangelical churches. He looks at a wide range of figures, such as Howard O. Jones, Tom Skinner, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and John Perkins. Charting progress as well as setbacks, his words offer encouragement for black evangelicals feeling alone, clarity for white evangelicals who want to understand more deeply, and fresh vision for all who want to move forward toward Christ’s prayer “that all of them may be one.”

This book, written by an African-American writer in the evangelical Christian world, talks about the many ways Christians have messed up in regards to creating a multicultural, multiracial church. To me, as someone who has thought and read a fair amount about this, the author’s tone sometimes seems too gentle. I wanted Gilbreath to leave less room for white Christians to say, “Oh, this doesn’t apply to me.” Still, I think this gentle tone is a good way of talking to people who need to hear this message and maybe haven’t been exposed to it before. Definitely an important read for white Christians, though I’m sure Christians of all races and backgrounds will get something out of it.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Ragamuffin Gospel

Many believers feel stunted in their Christian growth. We beat ourselves up over our failures and, in the process, pull away from God because we subconsciously believe He tallies our defects and hangs His head in disappointment. In this newly repackaged edition–now with full appendix, study questions, and the author’s own epilogue, “”Ragamuffin” Ten Years Later,” Brennan Manning reminds us that nothing could be further from the truth. The Father beckons us to Himself with a “furious love” that burns brightly and constantly. Only when we truly embrace God’s grace can we bask in the joy of a gospel that enfolds the most needy of His flock–the “ragamuffins.”

This is a classic in the Christian world, and I can’t believe I had never read it before now. I loved Manning’s emphasis on God’s love and grace, even during his darkest times. This book is powerful, and I definitely suggest reading it if you’re feeling far from God or stuck in your faith.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The 7 Experiment

Do you feel trapped in the machine of excess? Jen Hatmaker was. Her friends were. And some might say that our culture is. Jen once considered herself unmotivated by the lure of prosperity, but upon being called rich by a child who was living in poverty, evidence to the contrary mounted, and a social experiment turned spiritual journey was born. This study will lead you through this same experiment, at whatever level you choose, in seven key areas: food, clothes, spending, media, possessions, waste, and stress.

What s the payoff for living such a deeply reduced life? It s the discovery of a greatly increased God a call toward Christ-like simplicity and generosity that transcends a social experiment to become a radically better existence.

This book is Jen Hatmaker’s Bible study follow up to 7. If you want to enact some of the things Jen did in her original book, you should check this one out. It provides a clear and sometimes painful look at how our levels of consumption are causing people around the world to suffer, but it also gives concrete ideas on how to change the way you think about your time, money, possessions, food, technology, waste, and more. Jen backs everything up with biblical passages and discussion questions for your Bible study group.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Irresistible Revolution

Many of us find ourselves caught somewhere between unbelieving activists and inactive believers. We can write a check to feed starving children or hold signs in the streets and feel like we’ve made a difference without ever encountering the faces of the suffering masses. In this book, Shane Claiborne describes an authentic faith rooted in belief, action, and love, inviting us into a movement of the Spirit that begins inside each of us and extends into a broken world.

Shane’s faith led him to dress the wounds of lepers with Mother Teresa, visit families in Iraq amidst bombings, and dump $10,000 in coins and bills on Wall Street to redistribute wealth. Shane lives out this revolution each day in his local neighborhood, an impoverished community in North Philadelphia, by living among the homeless, helping local kids with homework, and “practicing resurrection” in the forgotten places of our world. Shane’s message will comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable . . . but will also invite us into an irresistible revolution. His is a vision for ordinary radicals ready to change the world with little acts of love.

If you’ve been waiting for the other book on this list that I consider a “must read,” this is it. This book is a breath of fresh air for anyone who feels stifled by traditional Christianity, for those who are tired of only hearing about orthodoxy and want to talk about orthopraxy. Shane’s views may rub some people the wrong way, but his idea of being an “ordinary radical” and showing great love to everyone is powerful. He spends time with Mother Teresa and the lepers in India; he travels to Iraq only a short while after 9/11; he opens his home to the homeless. And while this might sound extreme to some readers, Shane argues that this is the Christian life that Jesus wanted us to live.

To be completely honest, I’ve been struggling more and more with how much American Christianity has become intertwined with American politics, patriotism, and war. I’ve thought and talked and prayed about how we can return to the simple, painful path of radical generosity and love that I believe Jesus modeled for us. Even though I disagree with a few of Shane’s ideas, I was captivated by his vision of that radical love, and it has influenced my thinking on how to spend my time and money and skills. If you are at all disillusioned with the modern American church, you need to pick up this book.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

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

Middle Grades July Roundup

Quick reviews of my latest middle grades reads. #spon | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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It’s been a while since I posted a review! Life has been crazy in the best ways (and also in some of the not so great ways) since I last posted, but I’m hoping to get back on a regular posting schedule now. I’m starting off with a quick roundup of my recent middle grades reads. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

The Artsy Mistake Mystery

*Note: I received this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.

Outdoor art is disappearing all over the neighbourhood! From elaborate Halloween decorations to the Stream of Dreams fish display across the fence at Stephen and Renée’s school, it seems no art is safe. Renée’s brother, Attila, has been cursing those model fish since he first had to make them as part of his community service. So everyone thinks Attila is behind it when they disappear. But, grumpy teen though he is, Attila can do no wrong in Renée’s eyes, so she enlists Stephen’s help to catch the real criminal.

This book is a cute follow-up to the previous mistake mystery. Stephen and Renee have to discover who has been stealing art from around the neighborhood and clear Renee’s brother Attila’s name. Just as in the previous book, The Artsy Mistake Mystery shows how Stephen gains control of his anxiety by counting his and others’ mistakes and by realizing that it’s okay to make them.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman

At first glance, Duncan Dorfman, April Blunt, and Nate Saviano don’t seem to have much in common. Duncan is trying to look after his single mom and adjust to life in a new town while managing his newfound Scrabble superpower – he can feel words and pictures beneath his fingers and tell what they are without looking. April is pining for a mystery boy she met years ago and striving to be seen as more than a nerd in her family of jocks. And homeschooled Nate is struggling to meet his father’s high expectations for success.

When these three unique kids are brought together at the national Youth Scrabble Tournament, each with a very different drive to win, their paths cross and stories intertwine . . . and the journey is made extraordinary with a perfect touch of magic. Readers will fly through the pages, anxious to discover who will take home the grand prize, but there’s much more at stake than winning and losing.

This is a fun story about kids participating in a Scrabble tournament. Each of them has a different backstory, from the boy whose father wants redemption for his own Scrabble tournament loss to the girl who feels left out of her super athletic family to the boy who can read the letters of the tiles with his fingertips. Even if you’re not into Scrabble, it’s interesting to watch as the kids (and some of the adults) struggle with ethical dilemmas, making friends, and of course memorizing words.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Locomotion

When Lonnie Collins Motion “Locomotion” was seven years old, his life changed forever. Now he’s eleven, and his life is about to change again. His teacher, Ms. Marcus, is showing him ways to put his jumbled feelings on paper. And suddenly, Lonnie has a whole new way to tell the world about his life, his friends, his little sister Lili, and even his foster mom, Miss Edna, who started out crabby but isn’t so bad after all.

Jacqueline Woodson’s beautiful poetry (mostly free verse, but also haikus, sonnets, epistles, and more) tells the story of a young boy whose parents died in a fire and whose sister is in a different foster home. Lonnie uses his poetry to deal with tragedy, find his voice, and find home. This book is sad but lovely, a quick read that will stick with you long after you put it down.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

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