Norman's Best Books of 2017

9781455563913Since 2009, my husband, Norman Trepner, has written about his favorite books of the year.  Here is the 2017 edition. (With one exception, these are books for adults.) –Susan

I was aiming to complete this roundup of my favorite books for the year back in December, but I have a good reason for being late…I was reading!

The book that had me reading into the new year was Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee. This engrossing novel tells the story of one Korean family over four generations, beginning in Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 1900s up to Japan itself in the late 1980s. After finishing Pachinko, I looked at several reviews, and I found Tash Aw’s review in the Guardian to best describe this wonderful book. 

Pachinko wasn’t the only culprit for my list being late; I then went on to read two other books that I highly recommend, Ghachar Ghochar, written by Vivek Shanbhag and translated by Srinath Perur; and So Much Blue, by Percival Everett. Mr. Shanbhag has written eight works of fiction and two plays in the South Indian language Kannada, and Ghachar Ghochar (a nonsense phrase said by one of the characters and meaning knotted or tangled up) is the author’s first work to be translated into English. Set in Bangalore, this slim novel is about how a small, close-knit family changes after one of the members founds a successful spice company.

The protagonist in So Much Blue is Kevin Pace, a 56-year-old painter, and the book’s chapters alternate between Kevin’s present-day family life in New England, a harrowing trip taken to El Salvador in 1979 as civil war is breaking out, and a Parisian love affair some ten years ago. The three segments stand on their own and make for good reading, but it is the author’s sharp and often funny writing that made this one of my favorite books of late.

Sing-unburied-sing-9781501126062_hrMy other favorite novels over the past year were Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward; A Horse Walks into a Bar, written by David Grossman and translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen; Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid; and Autumn, by Ali Smith. Sing, Unburied, Sing won the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction, and the book definitely deserved the award. In relating the story of a poor Mississippi family, Ms. Ward manages to include a wild road trip, spirits from beyond, and a most touching relationship between a thirteen-year-old boy and his grandfather. I didn’t think Ms. Ward could top her 2011 National Book Award-winner, Salvage the Bones, but she has done so with her latest book.

In A Horse Walks into a Bar, a middle-aged stand-up comic crashes, burns, and breaks down in front of a live audience as he tells the story of his youth. This is a gut-wrenching and profoundly sad book that also happens to contains some much-needed bits that are laugh-out-loud funny. Exit West is the tale of two young adults that begins in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. The characters’ complex relationship and their travels are described in a sparse and haunting manner, with beautiful writing. This story captures what refugees leave behind, as well as what they face once they have migrated. It is also a warning about the global refugee crisis and today’s economic disparity.

There is so much to like in Autumn, but my favorite aspects of the book were, first, the friendship between a girl named Elisabeth and her much older neighbor, Daniel, and, second, the relationship between the grown-up Elisabeth and her mother. Autumn is the initial book in a planned four-volume series, and I am looking forward to reading Ms. Smith’s Winter, released earlier this month.

Several other novels that I recommend are as follows:

  • Transit, by Rachel Cusk–This is the second novel in a trilogy (Outline was the first), and Ms. Cusk once again engages the reader through a series of vignettes about Faye, a writer and divorced mother now living in London, and the different people she encounters. Ms. Cusk’s unique style and the book’s construction make this largely plotless story a joy to read and savor.
  • 9780525509714Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue–Published in 2016 and selected for Oprah’s Book Club, this is a fine debut novel about the difficulties faced by a married couple, Jende and Neni Jonga, after they immigrate to America from Cameroon. Also very well-told is the story of Jende’s employer, Clark Edwards, and his family.
  • The Idiot, by Elif Batuman–Slow-paced, but well worth the read is Ms. Batuman’s first novel, which is set in 1995 and is about an eighteen-year-old, Turkish-American Harvard student named Selin Karadag. Selin’s college classes, her roommates, her romantic crush, and her summer in Hungary are all quirky, and in this book Ms. Batuman’s intelligence and sense of humor both shine through.
  • Dinner at the Center of the Earth, by Nathan Englander–Employing multiple time periods and settings, and with different central characters, Mr. Englander has written an intriguing and creative book about Israeli-Palestinian relations. As noted in an NPR book review by Lizzie Skurnick,  “…this is not a novel of historical accuracy, but of historical intimacy…”.
  • The Dry, by Jane Harper–This page-turner mystery is set in a small Australian town that lacks water and prosperity, but is not short on questionable characters.
  • Night of Fire, by Colin Thubron–The fate of the six tenants and the superintendent in an old Victorian house is known from the beginning, but Mr. Thubron delivers a rewarding and thought-provoking book as he delves into the lives of the building’s occupants.

Moving away from novels, I’d like to mention two top-rate memoirs and a couple of other good books.

  • Dying: A Memoir, by the late Australian writer Cory Taylor, has been called remarkable, electrifying, and a testament to life. In my opinion, it is all these things and more.
  • The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart, by Emily Nunn, is an excellent “how to” book: how to pick yourself up, how to move forward, and how to make some incredible-sounding meals and treats. I had the pleasure of meeting Emily a few times when she and Susan worked together at the New Yorker, and I hope that Emily will (a) keep turning out good books and (b) have me over for dinner some time.
  • Just the title of Ottessa Moshfegh’s short-story collection, Homesick for Another World, made me want to read this, and I was not disappointed in the least. Unlike many collections where some stories are very good, some are okay, and one or two are not worth the read, each of these dark, unsettling, and outright strange stories is a winner.
  • My last recommendation is a children’s book called Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing. Written by the artist’s younger sister Kay A. Haring, and full of wonderful illustrations by Robert Neubecker, this picture-book biography of the late artist should be given to youngsters and owned by people of all ages. I read this book to a first-grade class in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and it was a big hit! Bravo, Ms. Haring and Mr. Neubecker.

Happy reading to all in 2018!

*****

Links to Norman's previous best-book lists: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016


Consider the Peacock

9781476510323Recently I read the book Peacocks to the second graders, and they had a lot to say about it. The local zoo has some of these beautiful birds, and many of the kids have seen them there. Second graders are less fanciful than first graders, but every year there is someone in the class who chimes in with a tall tale during discussion time. This week not one but two children told us about peacocks who had gotten into cars with them. Logistically such a scenario seems unlikely, considering six-foot tails and all, but who I am to quibble? I usually just say something like, "Wow!" and move on.

I asked the class what other animals they would like to read about, and various students mentioned puppies, kittens, dinosaurs, and sharks. There was a lot of enthusiasm for puppies. Then, beaming, one girl added, "Tarantulas!"


Reading 2017: Fiction Recommendations (Most for Grown-Ups, Some for Kids)

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A shout-out to the fiction that kept me sane this year. I am especially happy that four of 2017's best are by writers from Mississippi, my home state. They are

Always Happy Hour: Stories, by Mary Miller (Liveright, 2017)

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas (Balzer + Bray/HarperTeen, 2017). Young-adult novel.

Midnight Without a Moon, by Linda W. Jackson. Middle-grade novel. (Houghton Mifflin, 2017)

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, 2017)

 

These novels round out my list of favorites:

A Country Road, A Tree, by Jo Baker (Knopf, 2016)

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman (Penguin Putnam, 2017)

Imagine Me Gone, by Adam Haslett (Little Brown, 2016)

The Makioka Sisters, written by Junichiro Tanizaki and translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker (First serialized in Japan, 1943-1948. Seidensticker's translation was published by Knopf in 1957. I read the Vintage International/Penguin Random House edition from 1995.)

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, by Patty Yumi Cottrell (McSweeney's, 2017. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Nancy Wu and produced by Blackstone Audiobooks.)

Photo: Street scene, Biloxi, Mississippi.


Reading 2017: Nonfiction Recommendations (For Grown-Ups)

What a year! Thank goodness for books. A shout-out to the following:

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart, by Emily Nunn (Atria, 2017).

Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A, by Danielle Allen (Liveright, 2017)

Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves, by Kat Kinsman (HarperCollins, 2016)

How to Travel Without Seeing: Dispatches from the New Latin America, written by Andrés Neuman and translated from the Spanish by Jeffrey Lawrence (Restless Books, 2016)

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, by Pamela Paul (Henry Holt, 2017)

Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, by Jessica Abel (Broadway Books, 2015)

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship, by Michelle Kuo (Random House, 2017)

Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Unfortunate Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations That Only They Have Words For, by Rebecca Schuman (Flatiron Books, 2017)

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. Essays, by Samantha Irby (Vintage Books, 2017)

When in French: Love in a Second Language, by Lauren Collins (Penguin, 2016)


Favorite Picture Books, 1st and 2nd Grade Edition, Fall 2017

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I love being a volunteer reader, and have the good fortunate to stop in weekly at a couple of first- and second-grade classes in a nearby city. At its heart, literacy is about connection. "They're reading a book, and so are we!" one first grader observed about an illustration in Windows. Yes!

This fall I bought a bunch of new books, following the suggestions of others. (See a source list, below.) 

Here are some titles, including a few older ones, that the children were especially fond of. I am linking them to Powell's so you can see them; I'm not a sales affiliate. All will work with either grade.

After the Fall, by Dan Santat (Roaring Brook, 2017). Humpty Dumpty brilliantly re-imagined.

The Book with No Pictures, by B.J. Novak (Dial Books, 2014) Hysterically hilarious. Recommendation to the adult reader: give in to the comic anarchy.

Dragons Love Tacos, written by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri (Dial Books, 2012). But don't give them spicy salsa–or else...

Jabari Jumps, by Gaia Cornwall (Candlewick, 2017). Summoning up bravery.

Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, written by Kay Haring and illustrated by Robert Neubecker (Dial Books, 2017). A sister's loving account of the boyhood of a famous artist.

Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood, written by F. Isabel Campoy & Theresa Howell and illustrated by Rafael López (Penguin Random House, 2016). Everyone pitches in.

Mr. Huff, by Ana Walker (Penguin Random House Australia, 2015). Dealing with a bad mood. (Book Depository link)

No Kimchi for Me, by Aram Kim (Holiday House, 2017). Trying something new.

The One Day House, written by Julia Durango and illustrated by Bianca Diaz (Charlesbridge, 2017). Helping others.

Pecan Pie Baby, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Sophie Blackall (G.P. Putnam, 2010). New baby on the way and a sibling's conflicting emotions, perfectly captured.

Thunder Boy, Jr., written by Sherman Alexie and illustrated by Yuyi Morales (Little, Brown, 2016). Native American pride, fatherly love.

Windows, written by Julia Denos and illustrated by E.B. Goodale (Candlewick, 2017). Seeing the neighborhood in a new light.

 

Some good book-finding resources, just to name a few:

We're the People lists from 2015, 2016, and 2017. Recommendations from a diverse group of authors and reading professionals. 

American Indians in Children's Literature. Reading the posts on Thunderboy, Jr., was quite helpful before I shared the book.

Crystal Brunelle's Twitter feed. Teacher/librarian and co-blogger at the site Rich in Color.

The Horn Book's Calling Caldecott blog. Considerations of picture book art.

International Latino Book Awards. Via La Bloga.

Jama Rattigan's blog Jama's Alphabet Soup. Kids' books about food.

New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children's Book Award

Tomás Rivera Book Award. Books celebrating the Mexican American experience.

A big list of resources on the "Where to Find Diverse Books" page at We Need Diverse Books

If you haven't read it already, do see Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's important 1990 essay "Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors," available in a PDF file and posted by Reading Is Fundamental here.


1, 2 Read

This year I am a weekly volunteer reader in two first-grade classes in addition to my usual second-grade gig. All three classes of eager learners bring joy to my morning. The city where I read offers a well-organized program for school volunteers, and reading aloud is such a fun thing to do if you have the time.

I read only one book in each class, and that works out well. Even first graders have a lot of tasks to get through in a day! Their wonderful teachers also read aloud to them, with the goal of getting the kiddos as much exposure to books and stories—and literacy—we can. All the classrooms have Smart Boards, and sometimes a read-aloud is projected there. Plus, the children have access to online books and laptops at school. The teachers maintain classroom libraries, too, and one of the first graders has insisted that I visit his school library because he thinks I would like it. I hope to next week!

The last book I read to the first graders was Saturn, by J.P. Bloom, part of a planet series from Abdo Kids. The children recognized it as nonfiction right away. We learned a lot, even though the text is relatively short. Saturn has some sixty moons, you cannot stand on Saturn because it is made of gas, and more. Several folks had questions about the sun, so that will be the topic of the next read-aloud. Another title they liked was James Marshall's Red Riding Hood. During the part where RRH goes into the scary woods, which Marshall renders pitch-black, one little girl on the front row reached out to hold her friend's hand. Just the sweetest thing in the world, right? Once we got through that, and laughed in relief at the huge hairy feet of the wolf pretending to be Grandma, we talked for a bit before wrapping up. You can't forget about the tender feelings of little people.

The second graders, who are less wiggly but equally chatty, especially enjoyed Dan Santat's Caldecott-winning picture book The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. We reminisced about imaginary friends, and I told them about mine (Mary Mércedes, accent on the first syllable, a big demander of extra place settings) when I was a little girl. On my way out of the class that day, one of the children asked, "Do you still have your imaginary friend?" I had to think about that a minute. Do I? Well, yes, I do. I think she's in here, I told the class, pointing to my head. Such a great question. This group also got a kick out of Rowboat Watkins' Rude Cakes, which gleefully turns the monster stereotype on its head. Making predictions during a crucial scene was fun.


Norman's Best Books of 2016

Since 2009, my husband, Norman Trepner, has been compiling his favorite books of the year. Here is his list for 2016.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to read as much as I would have liked to have this year (do any of us?), but, on the positive side, I managed to find time to read some truly outstanding fiction and nonfiction. My favorite novel was Imagine Me Gone, by Adam Haslett. This book is about love and loss in a family dealing with a father’s and son’s depression and anxiety. It is told from the viewpoints of all the family members, with characters that are so well-drawn and writing that is so sharp that even though the end was not a surprise, it still managed to take my breath away.

9780143109273The next two books that I highly recommend have been widely recognized this past year—The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, and The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan. Whitehead’s fast-paced and brutal story—about an escaped slave, the activists that try to help her, and the people who attempt to capture her—won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, and it was an Oprah’s Book Club selection. Mahajan’s novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. It joined The Underground Railroad on the New York Times’ top ten books of the year list, and it made many other “best of year” lists as well. The Association of Small Bombs follows two families whose lives are forever changed after a bomb goes off in a market in Delhi, India, but what made this intense and tragic novel stand out for me were its explorations of the relationships between Hindus and Muslims, victims and terrorists, husbands and wives, and parents and children. Both books are, in my opinion, great reads.

I became a big fan of Jacqueline Woodson after her middle-grade novel Brown Girl Dreaming came out in 2014, and her newest book for adults, Another Brooklyn, did not disappoint me. Set in the 1970s, this is the story of a young girl who moves with her father and brother from Tennessee to Brooklyn, leaving behind her mother and a life that was vastly different from what she experiences up north. Woodson’s elegant and beautiful writing succeeds not only in its telling of friendship and adolescence, but also in capturing the Brooklyn of yesteryear. This one was also a National Book Award finalist.

9781631492334_198Two books that I found to be quirky, well-written, and thoroughly enjoyable were Nutshell, by Ian McEwan, and The Red Car, by Marcy Dermansky. The narrator in Nutshell is a smart and opinionated unborn baby whose mother is plotting to kill his father. Need I say more about quirky? The Red Car is page-turning, surreal tale of a woman who leaves her unhappy marriage and dull life in Queens to attend the funeral of a former boss and take possession of the red sports car that her ex-boss left her. Both of these books are short (about 200 pages each), funny, and good, fast reads.

The last three fiction recommendations I’d like to pass along are High Dive, by Jonathan Lee, Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler, and Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. High Dive examines the lives of the people working at an English hotel and an IRA explosives expert who attempts to blow up the place when Margaret Thatcher and other Conservative Party members are there for a meeting. Set in 1984 in Brighton, this work of fiction is based on a true event. Sweetbitter is a more contemporary story about a woman who moves to New York and works at a restaurant in Manhattan. I think anyone who enjoys fine dining will find the storyline about working in the “front of the house” of a high-end and unnamed restaurant (the Union Square Café, oops!) to be engrossing, and this aspect of the book more than compensates for a less than fully believable love triangle that unfolds over the course (no pun intended) of the novel. I didn’t think that Commonwealth got off to a strong start, but Patchett’s book, which spans five decades, four parents, six children, and multiple states, grew on me and ended up being a very satisfying and solid read.

9780812994827I can’t complete my year-end roundup without mentioning three extraordinary nonfiction works. In Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (also a New York Times top ten pick), the author Matthew Desmond explores the impact of eviction in the US by focusing on the toll it takes on poverty-stricken families in Milwaukee, and in City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, former Human Rights Watch worker Ben Rawlence shows us the devastating conditions in the U.N.–administered refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, a place that is home to almost half a million people, most of whom came from Somalia to escape the civil war that began in the 1990s. Both of these books are important for students (upper-grade high school and college) and adults to read in order fully understand how fortunate we are and how critical it is for us to help those in need, both within and beyond our borders. Rounding out my list is The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between, by Hisham Matar. When he was twelve, Matar and his family left Libya because of his father’s criticism of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s dictatorship. Eight years later, the author’s father, Jaballa Matar, was kidnapped, sent to Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, Libya, and never seen again by his son. In this haunting and powerful book, the author searches to learn what happened and to try to close a gap in his life and in his heart.  


Favorite Books I Read in 2016

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After a fun trip to Mexico City, I am ushering out 2016 reading Roberto Bolaño's novel The Savage Detectives, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer and partially set in the Ciudad de México. A wild ride of a book, for sure! I started studying Spanish again, too, this year.

Here are some of the favorite books that I read in 2016, some published this year, others not.

Barefoot Dogs, by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho

The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship, by Paul Lisicky

Peas and Carrots, by Tanita S. Davis

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

The Dark Back of Time, by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen

Seeing Red, by Lina Meruane, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

The House by the Lake: A Story of Germany, by Thomas Harding

I Love Cake! Starring Rabbit, Porcupine, and Moose, written by Tammi Sauer and illustrated by Angie Rozelaar

The Vanishing Velásquez: A 19th-Century Bookseller's Obsession with a Lost Masterpiece, by Laura Cumming

How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, by Edward Hirsch

The Outrun, by Amy Liptrot

One of the best bookish things I did was taking the free online course "Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing," offered through the UK's Warwick University on the FutureLearn platform.  The six-week course repeats on January 30, 2017; I recommend it highly, as well as FutureLearn's class on Much Ado about Nothing, presented by the University of Birmingham and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Photograph: Calle Madero, Mexico City. Photo by Norman Trepner.


Norman's Best Books of 2015

My husband, Norman, reads up a storm, so I am handing over the blog today for his annual Best Books list. You can find good reading in his selections from previous years, too: 20092010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Thank you, Norman! (Note: these are books for grown-ups not kids.)

256px-Bouquinistesseine1As the year 2015 winds down, my wife, Susan, has once again allowed me to write about some of the books I’ve enjoyed over the last twelve months.

So, without further adieu, my top three novels were

· The Door, by Magda Szabó (translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix). I have to admit that I had never heard of Magda Szabó, the famed Hungarian author who passed away in 2007, or of her 1987 novel, The Door, but thanks to New York Review Books Classics, I and many others have come to discover this superb novel about the complex relationship between a writer and her elderly housekeeper. The book is set in postwar Hungary, but through the stories of the housekeeper, Emerence, we also learn about Hungary’s troubled political past. This book is fiction at its finest.

· Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf, is a beautifully told story of friendship and love between Louis and Addie, widowed neighbors in their 70s, as they face not only small-town gossip but also disapproval from their adult children. Sadly, Mr. Haruf wrote this book while he was very ill, and in fact, he passed away six months before it was published. I highly recommend reading the article “Kent Haruf’s Last Chapter,” published in the Wall Street Journal on 5/14/15, as well as the wonderful books Plainsong (1999) and Benediction (2013) if you’ve not already done so.

· Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff, tells the story of the 24-year marriage of Lancelot (Lotto), an actor who comes from a prosperous family, and his “ice princess” wife, Mathilde. The first part of the book, "Fates," centers on Lotto, and "Furies" is Mathilde’s story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading "Fates," but I found "Furies" to be a page-turning shocker that I couldn’t put down.

Other outstanding novels that I highly recommend are Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham, Among the Ten Thousand Things, by Julia Pierpont, History of the Rain, by Niall Williams, and Did You Ever Have a Family, by Bill Clegg. On my list of books I didn’t get to in 2015 but plan to read next year are City on Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg, and The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy.

219px-SteacieLibrary7My top three nonfiction books in 2015 were

· Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, by Jill Leovy. This is an extremely powerful and very informative book about race and the criminal justice system in America. It focuses on the murder of 18-year-old Bryant Tennelle, killed in South Central LA in 2007, and the dedicated detective who investigates the case. However, this is far more than a detective story as Leovy, who in 2007 started a blog on the Los Angeles Times site called "The Homicide Report" (which has the motto “a story for every victim”), brings forth the realities of living in and policing an economically disadvantaged, largely African American neighborhood where crime rates are too high and justice is difficult to find.

· Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is another exceptional book that addresses the inequality of black men in society in the past and continuing today, but unlike in Ghettoside, where Ms. Leovy takes an analytical and multifaceted approach, Between the World and Me is more a personal and emotionally charged accounting of the struggles faced by black men; Mr. Coates’s experiences and observations are told in the form of letters to his teenaged son. This book is both a memoir and social commentary that, in my opinion, was well-deserving of the National Book Award.

· Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, by Sally Mann. Ms. Mann is a very talented photographer who faced excessive media attention in the early nineties after gallery shows of the collection "Immediate Family," which included nude photos of her then-young children. Her new book, Hold Still, is a winning combination of personal memoir and explanation of what it’s like to view life as a photographer. I do have to admit that I found a good deal of the subject matter to be unconventional and strange, which only added to my appreciation of the book.

I would now like to mention three other books much worth reading:

· The first is Thirteen Ways of Looking, by Colum McCann. The author of Let the Great World Spin and Transatlantic does not disappoint in his newest collection, which consists of a marvelous novella and three strong short stories.

· The next book is Humans of New York: Stories, by Brandon Stanton. I received this as a holiday present, and I loved it! The photographs are clear and crisp, and the stories, which range from one-sentence comments to a few pages long, cover the full emotional spectrum. What else would you expect from New Yawkas!

· And last, but certainly not least, is Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by Mary Norris. Mary (whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting several times when Susan worked at the New Yorker) writes with humor, intelligence, and a pragmatic approach to grammar that make Between You & Me not only helpful but also enjoyable.

Happy reading to us all in 2016!

 

Image 1: "Bouquinistes au bord de la Seine à Paris," by Jebulon (own work). Used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Image 2:"SteacieLibrary7" by Raysonho. Steacie Science and Engineering Library, York University, Toronto. Public domain photograph, via Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.


2015 Best Children's Books of the Year: A List of Lists and Awards

It's raining books, hallelujah!

The holiday season means an abundance of online "best books" lists, and here on Chicken Spaghetti I collect the ones for kids' books. The focus is on material published in 2015, although you'll find that a few lineups also incorporate titles from previous years. Some of them cover way more than children's books; a mention here means that somewhere on the list is at least one kids' category. I plan to update the big list regularly.

©Susan Thomsen, 2015.

Be sure to see the magnificent list of all 2015 book lists at Largehearted Boy. And my list-loving Irish friends at St. Columba's College English Department have started their annual roundup, too. Travis Jonker, over at School Library Journal's 100 Scope Notes blog, writes about "2015 Children's Lit: The Year in Miscellanea."

AAAS: SB&F holiday gift guide. (AAAS=American Association for the Advancement of Science. SB&F=Science Books & Film review journal)

AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize finalists. Science books. 

Abby the Librarian. Favorites.

The Age. Same list as Sydney Morning Herald. (Australia)

A.V. Club. One-shot comics and graphic novels, a few for kids. Same with ongoing and serial comics.

Air & Space Magazine (Smithsonian). Aviation- and space-themed books.

Alaska Dispatch News. Favorite Alaska books include a couple for younger readers.

Alex Awards. Adult books appropriate for teens.

All the Wonders. Nonfiction.
All the Wonders. Picture books.

Alligator's Mouth (UK)

Amazon. Children.
Amazon. Young adult.

Anorak Magazine. Picture books. (UK)

Asian Pacific American Library Association (APALA) Literary Award. Via the Lee & Low Books blog.

Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC). Notable books of the year.

Atlantic. One YA book on the list.

Audubon Magazine. Bird books, with a couple for children.

Australian

Autostraddle. "Top 10 queer and feminist" books and runners-up include a few YA titles.

Bank Street Center for Children's Literature: Children's Book Awards

Batchelder Award. For children's books in translation.

Ben Clanton's Squiggles & Scribbles

Birmingham Mail. Christmas books. (UK)

Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension. Teacher Pernille Ripp's YA gift list.

Blue Peter Book Awards. Shortlists. (UK)

BN (Barnes & Noble) Teen Blog

Boing Boing. A few kids' books in the gift guide.

Book Chook (Australia)

Book Dragon (Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center blog). Books for adults & children.

Book Riot. List includes YA. Same with another Book Riot list, best books "you might have missed," and audiobooks.

Book Voyagers. Young adult and new adult, mostly.

Booklist. Religion and spirituality.
Booklist. Arts.
Booklist. First novels.
Booklist. Romance fiction.
Booklist. Science and health.

BookPage. Children and teens. Plus, gift books.
BookPage. YA.

Books for Keeps. Gifts. (UK)

Books Live. A couple of titles for younger readers on a long list of reviewers' favorites. (South Africa)

Booktopia. Scroll down on the list. (Australia)

Bord Gáis Energy (BGE) Irish Book Awards shortlists. Junior and senior. (Ireland)

Boston Globe. Kids.
Boston Globe. Young adult.

Boys' Life Book Zone

Brain Pickings. Art books, including one kids' title. Same with science books.
Brain Pickings. Children's books.

British Comic Awards. Shortlists & longlists. (UK)

Brown Bookshelf

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Blue Ribbons, for best books of the year.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's books. Gift guide (PDF). 

Bustle. Best YA book covers.

BuzzFeed. "Beautifully illustrated" picture books.
BuzzFeed. Fantasy books, including a few for kids.
BuzzFeed. Gifts for "activisty families."
BuzzFeed. Young adult.

Caldecott Medal

Canadian Children's Book Centre Awards

Carnegie Medal. For children's video.

CBC/Radio-Canada. List includes a few books for kids. (Canada)

Center for the Study of Multicultural Children's Literature (Pinterest page)

Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) UK

Centro Voices. "Essential Boricua Reading for the Holiday Season" includes some kids' & YA books.

Charlotte Zolotow Award

Chen Bochui Awards (China). Via the Bookseller.

Chicago Public Library. Fiction for older readers (3rd through 8th grades).
Chicago Public Library. Informational books for older readers (3rd through 8th grades).
Chicago Public Library. Informational books for younger readers (Kindergarten through 3rd grade).
Chicago Public Library. Picture books.
Chicago Public Library. Teen fiction.
Chicago Public Library. Teen graphic novels and manga.
Chicago Public Library. Teen nonfiction.

Christchurch City Libraries (New Zealand)

Charlotte Huck Award. For fiction; sponsored by NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English).

Cleaver Magazine

Comics Alliance. Teens.

Conversations Book Club

Cool Mom Picks

Cooperative Children's Book Center. CCBC Choices. (PDF)

Coretta Scott King Book Award

Cosmos Magazine. Illustrated science books, with several for children. (Australia)

Costa Children's Book Award. Shortlist and winner. PDFs (UK)

Culture Whisper (UK)

Cuyahoga Public Library. Gifts & "great books for kids."

Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards). Finalists in eleven categories. Winners to be announced Feb. 14, 2016.

Daily Beast

Daily Express (UK)

Daily O (India)

Denver Public Library. Gift guide.

EarlyWord. Spread sheet of various lists of best kids' books.

Edgar Awards. Sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America. Nominees, including "juvenile" and YA books. Winners to be announced April 28, 2016.

Elle UK. One kids' book on the list.

Entertainment Weekly. Comics, some for adults.
Entertainment Weekly. Gift guide: teens.

Entropy. Best fiction list includes a graphic novel for young adults.

Everything Zoomer. Gifts. (Canada)

Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction Award. See YALSA, below.

Ezra Jack Keats Awards. To be announced April 2016.

Financial Times (UK)

First Book

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

A Fuse #8 Production (School Library Journal blog). Librarian Elizabeth Bird's 100 Magnificent Children's Books 2015.

#GayYABookClub. 2015 Favorites from a Twitter chat, via Storify.

GeekDad. Gift guide, kids & adults.

Geisel Award. Beginning readers. Announced Jan. 11, 2016; link coming soon.

Globe and Mail (Canada)

Good Reads with Ronna. Picture books.

Goodreads Choice Awards. Graphic novels and comics. Some, not all, for children.
Goodreads Choice Awards. Middle grade.
Goodreads Choice Awards. Picture books.
Goodreads Choice Awards. Young adult fantasy and science fiction.
Goodreads Choice Awards. Young adult fiction.

Governor General Literary Awards. For children's literature, text (English and French), and illustrated books (English and French). (Canada)

Gransnet (UK)

Guardian. Best kids' books of the year. Plus, some author, editor, and reader favorites.
Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. Shortlist. Winner. (UK)
Guardian. Christmas books. (UK)
Guardian. Various authors' favorites of the year. See Lauren Child's picks for some children's books. (UK)
Guardian. Young Critics Competition winners. (UK)

Heavy Medal, A Mock Newbery Blog. Shortlist.

Herald (Scotland). Picture books. (UK)
Herald (Scotland). YA. (UK)
Herald (Scotland). Younger readers. (UK)

Horn Book Magazine. Fanfare, year's best.
Horn Book Magazine. Holiday High Notes, new holiday books.

Hudson Booksellers

Huffington Post. Picture books.
Huffington Post. YA.

Imagination Soup. Board books.

Independent. Books for babies. (UK)
Independent. Picture books.
Independent. Readers aged 8 to 11.
Independent. Young adult. (UK)

Indigo (Canada)

io9. Science fiction and fantasy, including some YA books.

Irish Times. Robert Dunbar's favourites. (Ireland)

Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. Gifts recommended by a Lemuria Books staffer.
Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. Top Mississippi books, including books for kids.

Japan Times. Books on Japan, including several for children. (Japan)

Jefferson County (Colorado) Public Library. Best monster books. Now we're talkin'.

Jewish Journal. Hanukkah books.

Jewish Press

Kansas City Star

KCUR/Johson County (Kansas) Library

Kid Lit Frenzy

KidsReads

Kirkus Reviews. Middle grade.
Kirkus Reviews. Picture books.
Kirkus Reviews. Teen. Plus, columnist Leila Roy's "stand-out YA" books of the year.

LA Weekly. LA books, one YA.

Latina Book Club. Some kids' and YA titles on the list.

Latin@s in Kid Lit

Latinas for Latino Lit

Literary Hub. Booksellers' favorites, with a couple of titles for younger readers.

Londonist. Best London books, with a couple for kids. (UK)

Lone Star Literary Life. Texas books for younger readers, and Texas YA.

Los Angeles Public Library. Children.
Los Angeles Public Library. Teens.

Lucie's List

Marin Mommies

Masala Mommas. South Asian kids' books, with some older titles. (Canada)

Maverick Graphic Novel Reading List, from the Texas Library Association.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. List includes two kids' books.

Minneapolis Star Tribune. Critics' Choices include one book for children.
Minneapolis Star Tribune. Middle-grade and YA books by Minnesota authors.

MPR (Minnesota Public Radio)

Morris Award. For debut young adult fiction. Finalists. Winner.

Motherland. Books for preschoolers. (UK)

Mountain Xpress. Kids' books by local Asheville, NC, area authors.

Multnomah County Library. Kids.
Multnomah County Library. Picture books.
Multnomah County Library. Teens.

NAACP Image Awards. Nominees in many categories, including outstanding literary works for children and for youth/teens.

Nashville Lifestyles. Southern titles, with one picture book on the list.

National Book Award for Young People's Literature

National Outdoor Book Awards

National Science Teachers Association. Outstanding science trade books for students K-12.

NBC News Latino. Latino books from small presses; one kids' title on the list.

Nerdy Book Club. Early readers and chapter books.
Nerdy Book Club. Fiction picture books.
Nerdy Book Club. Graphic novels.
Nerdy Book Club. Middle grade fiction
Nerdy Book Club. Nonfiction.
Nerdy Book Club. Nonfiction picture books.
Nerdy Book Club. Poetry and novels in verse.
Nerdy Book Club. Young adult fiction, Part 1 and Part 2.

New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards

New Scientist. One kids' book on the list. (UK)

New Statesman. Critic Amanda Craig's selections. (UK)

New York Public Library. "100 Notable Titles for Reading and Sharing."
New York Public Library. Teens.

New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books
New York Times Notable Children's Books

Newbery Medal

News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)

Nonfiction Detectives

Not My Typewriter. List includes a few books for kids.

NPR. Kids.
NPR. Young adult.

Odyssey Award. For audiobooks.

Oklahoman. Gifts.

Orbis Pictus Award. For nonfiction; sponsored by NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English).

Pages & Pages (Australia)

Parents Magazine

Parents' Choice Awards

Parnassus Musing. Gift list for children and teens.

Paste. Comic books, some for kids. 
Paste. Young adult.

Peaceful Reader

Penn GSE [Graduate School of Education] Newsroom. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas's picks.

Picture Books Blogger (UK)

Planetary Society. Books about space.

Port Huron (Mich.) Times Herald. Gifts.

Powell's Books. Plus, "picks of the season" for adults and kids.

Prime Minister's Literary Awards. Shortlists. (Australia)

Printz Award. Announced Jan. 11, 2016; link coming soon.

Project Eve Moms. Picture books.

Publishers Weekly. Comics. Some, not all, for children.
Publishers Weekly. Middle grade.
Publishers Weekly. Picture books.
Publishers Weekly. Young adult.

Pura Belpré Awards

Queensland Literary Awards (Australia)

Quill & Quire (Canada)

Rainbow List. GLBTQ books.

Raising Arizona Kids

Reading Is Fundamental

Reading (MA) Public Library

Reading Rockets. Gift guide.

Readings. Emily Gale's picks for her family. (Australia)
Readings. Junior fiction. (Australia)
Readings. Middle fiction. (Australia)
Readings. Picture books. (Australia)
Readings. Young adult. (Australia)

Red Magazine (UK)

Rich in Color. Favorite diverse books from K. Imani, Jessica, Crystal, and Audrey.

Rookie. Gifts (teens).

Royal Society Young People's Book Prize. Science books. (UK)

Sakura Medal. Nominees. (Japan)

San Francisco Chronicle. Gift guide include books for children.

San Jose Mercury News. Middle-school readers.
San Jose Mercury News. Younger readers.

Sarah Webb (Ireland)

Schneider Family Book Award. Announced Jan. 11, 2016; link coming soon.

School Library Journal. Adult books for teens.
School Library Journal. Middle grade.
School Library Journal. Nonfiction.
School Library Journal. Picture books.
School Library Journal. Top 10 audiobooks
School Library Journal. Top 10 graphic novels.
School Library Journal. Top 10 Latin@ books.
School Library Journal. Young adult.

Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Via Read Roger at the Horn Book.

Seattle Review of Books. Teens.

Shelf Awareness

Sibert Informational Book Award

Slate. Laura Miller's list includes a kids' book.

South Coast Today (MA)

Spectator. One kids' book included. (UK)

Spinoff  (New Zealand)

Stonewall Book Award

Sunday Express (UK)

Sydney Morning Herald. Plus, Colin Steele's gift picks, which include a couple of kids' and YA books. (Australia)

Sydney Taylor Book Awards. Sponsored by the Association of Jewish Libraries. (PDF)

Tablet Magazine. Marjorie Ingall's roundup of the best Jewish children's books.

Teaching for Change

TD Canadian Children's Literature Award shortlist

Tejas Star Reading List. Bilingual English/Spanish books, and books in Spanish.

Telegraph. Young adult. (UK)

Time

Today's Parent. Picture books. (Canada)

Tor.com. Staff favorites include some YA.

Toronto Public Library. Books for children under 5. (Canada)

Tri-City News (Canada)

USA Today. Christmas books.

Vampire Book Club. Some YA books on the list.

Victorian Premier's Literary Awards  (Australia)

Vikki VanSickle (Canada)

Vox. Comics, some for kids.

Vulture (New York Magazine). Graphic novels, some for kids.

Waking Brain Cells. Fiction.
Waking Brain Cells. Graphic novels.
Waking Brain Cells. Nonfiction.
Waking Brain Cells. Picture books.

Wall Street Journal. Gifts. Also, a "Best of the Best-of Lists" includes YA. And Meghan Cox Gurdon's list (behind a pay wall).

We Need Diverse Books/B&N [Barnes and Noble] Teen Blog

What Do We Do All Day? Picture books: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Plus, middle grade books.

Washington Post. Children's books.
Washington Post. Graphic novels. Some, not all, for kids.

Waterstones' Book of the Year (UK)

We Need Diverse Books. Middle grade.

YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults. Finalists. Winner. (YALSA = Young Adult Library Services Association) 

YALSA lists

Zooglobble. Best kids' music. Not books but still fun.


Lynda Barry on Fairy Tales

They can't transform your actual situation, but they can transform your experience of it. We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay. 

So wise. This is from the cartoonist Lynda Barry's memoir/exploration of images What It Is (Drawn & Quarterly, 2008). I so enjoyed the whole book, especially the part about the "transformational capabilities" of old stories. Barry's ideas reinforced my tentative plan to read the second graders a whole lot of fairy tales and folk tales this year. 


Reading Aloud, or Yay for Second Graders!

Good morning! Sheesh, Chicken Spaghetti is pretty dusty, and needs some tidying up. But before I do that, let's talk books. 

I had a really fun year reading to second graders at a nearby city school. I visit the class once a week, share a story, and then we talk. Sometimes we stay on topic.

The class favorite of 2014-2015 was the very funny Book with No Pictures, by B.J. Novak. I could have read it 52 times, and the kids would have been happy. It's a goof on the grown-up doing the reading, forcing her to utter lines like, "My only friend in the whole wide world is a hippo named Boo-Boo Butt." I read it in January, and in June that sentence was still being remembered fondly. 

Right up there with The Book with No Pictures was Rude Cakes, by Rowboat Watkins. Another hilarious title, this one led to the kids writing their own Rude stories, including one about a Rude Valentine. "On Sunday, the Rude Valentine interrupted church." I love it. 

Here are some of the other selections:

Emmanuel's Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, by Laurie Ann Thompson & Sean Qualls

Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman, written by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by David Diaz

ZooBorns! Zoo Babies from Around the World, by Andrew Bleiman and Chris Eastland

Pecan Pie Baby, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Sophie Blackall

Madame Martine, written and illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen

Tia Isa Wants a Car, written by Meg Medina and illustrated by Claudio Muñoz

Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do, by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

Kat Kong and Dogzilla, by Dav Pilkey

The Three Cabritos, written by Eric A. Kimmell and illustrated by Stephen Gilpin

For the next school year I am considering reading only folk tales and fractured folk tales. It could be really fun. Think of the vast 398.2 section in the library. Endless possibilities! 


Norman's Best Books of 2014

It's a New Year's tradition to hand over the blog to my husband, Norman, for his annual list!

Thanks, Susan, for once again letting me tell your readers about the books I’ve enjoyed this past year. My favorite fiction books were, in no particular order, Redeployment, by Phil Klay; Family Life, by Akhil Sharma;  Euphoria, by Lily King; All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr; and Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill. My top nonfiction books were Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, and Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, by Roz Chast.

After winning the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction, Phil Klay told the Guardian, “If I was going to write about war I had to be as rigorous and as honest as possible because that’s the only way I could justify it.” The twelve short stories in Klay’s phenomenal Redeployment are about as searing and honest as I can imagine in describing the toll that war takes on the men and women who serve in the military and on the people on whose soil they fight. In my 2012 year-end roundup, Kevin Powers’ novel, The Yellow Birds, made the top of my list, and now I’m glad to spread the word about another book that will become a classic in modern-day war literature.

9780802122551Family Life concerns a mother, father, and two young sons, who move from India to Queens; they have begun to build a new life when one of the boys suffers severe brain damage in a swimming-pool accident. This novel skillfully examines how everyone’s life changes after a tragedy, but, beyond that, the author does a superb job of showing how the family interacts with and is perceived by the local Indian community after the accident. Euphoria is a must-read novel set in the 1930s and inspired by the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead. I must confess that (1) I know next to nothing about Margaret Mead, (2) I never heard of the other anthropologists fictionalized in the book (Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson), and (3) I don’t know much about New Guinea or tribal people, but this work drew me in from the beginning and was difficult to put down until the very end. What more could one ask for in a book!

In All the Light We Cannot See, the combination of well-drawn characters, strong writing, and fine pacing makes Doerr’s WWII-era book, about a blind French girl and a German boy, a great read. Dept. of Speculation is a small and amazing novel about a wife, mother, and writer (all one person) in the throes of a troubled marriage. Ms. Offill’s novel was a standout in large part because of her unique and quirky storytelling.

Susan raved to me about Brown Girl Dreaming and for good reason. This winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature should be required reading for everyone from tweens on up. Through a series of poems, Ms. Woodson shares her experiences as an African American girl growing up in South Carolina and Brooklyn in the sixties and seventies. Some of the most poignant sections are about her roots as an artist; the Horn Book said, “…[W]e trace her development as a nascent writer, from her early, overarching love of stories through her struggles to learn to read through the thrill of her first blank composition book to her realization that ‘words are [her] brilliance.’”

The other nonfiction books I really liked was the cartoonist Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? I found Ms. Chast’s graphic memoir to be many things–sad, funny, painful to read, and honest–in depicting both our willingness (or lack thereof) to face the reality of aging parents and our complex feelings about the folks who raised us.

Two good titles that fall into the category of laugh-out-loud funny are Spoiled Brats: Stories, by Simon Rich, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris. I am a big fan of David Sedaris, and I’d put most of Rich’s stories right up there with Sedaris’s essays in terms of humor and cleverness. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is filled with sharp lines and perceptions as the main character, a Manhattan dentist, grapples with identity theft, girlfriends and co-workers, religion, and loneliness.

9780804138789I can’t end my annual roundup without mentioning some titles that are too good not to pass along. Both Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín, and The Liar’s Wife: Four Novellas, by Mary Gordon, showcase how exquisite writing can elevate a simple story; Dinaw Mengestu’s All Our Names stands out for its take on the immigrant experience. Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen and Susan Minot’s Thirty Girls, set in Mexico and Uganda, respectively, are important, rich stories about kidnapping and survival. 

Finally, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre, is a most-readable, true story about espionage and deceit.  

As always, I wish everyone happy reading in the new year.


My Favorite Books of 2014

My New Year's resolution is always Read More Books, and usually I end it there. In 2014 I was able to do a lot of reading. Yay! Meanwhile, Norman is working on his great list. Stay tuned.

In 2015 I am most looking forward to works by my friends Mary Norris and Emily Nunn. Mary's Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (W.W. Norton) is due out in April, and Emily's book, The Comfort Food Diaries (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster), hits the shelves in September. I can't wait!

If you have a book being published in 2015, please mention it in the comments. I don't want to miss a thing.

Here are some of my favorites from last year. Don't you love saying that on January 1st? I don't know how many books I read total; I always space out and forget to keep count. I do the same thing with swimming laps.

Bad Feminist: Essays, by Roxane Gay (Harper Perennial, 2014) 

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson (Nancy Paulsen Books/ Simon & Schuster, 2014)

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? A Memoir, by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury, 2014)

Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner (Random House, 1987)

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng (Penguin, 2014)

Family Life, by Akhil Sharma (W.W. Norton, 2014)

Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited and with an introduction by Joy Castro (University of Nebraska Press, 2013)

Fire Shut Up in My Bones: A Memoir, by Charles M. Blow (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)

Gabriel: A Poem, by Edward Hirsch (Knopf, 2014)

Half a World Away, by Cynthia Kadohata (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2014)

Harumi's Japanese Cooking: More Than 75 Authentic and Contemporary Recipes from Japan's Most Popular Cooking Expert, by Harumi Kurihara (HP Trade, 2006)

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, by Professor X (Viking, 2011)

The Juggler's Children: A Journey Into Family, Legend, and the Genes That Bind Us, by Caroline Abraham (Random House Canada, 2013)

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo; translated from the Japanese by Cathy Hirano (Ten Speed Press/Random House, 2014) 

Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books, 2014)

Men We Reaped: A Memoir, by Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury, reprint edition, 2014; original hardback, 2013)

My Life in Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead (Crown, 2014)

Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín (Scribner, 2014)

Postcards from Cookie: A Memoir of Motherhood, Miracles, and a Whole Lot of Mail, by Caroline Clarke (Harper, 2014)

The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, by Richard Blanco (Ecco, 2014)

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League, by Jeff Hobbs (Scribner, 2014)

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki (Viking, 2013)

Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books, by Nick Hornby (Believer Books/McSweeney's, 2013) 

Traveling Heavy: A Memoir Between Journeys, by Ruth Behar (Duke University Press Books 2013)

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, by Olivia Laing (Picador, 2013)

Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education, edited by Jennifer De Leon (University of Nebraska Press, 2014) 

Writing Is My Drink: A Writer's Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too), by Theo Pauline Nestor (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2013)


Brown Girl Dreaming

9780399252518HI usually have a couple of books going at once, and I love it when they talk to each other.

 

Virginia Woolf asks, in Hours in a Library, a series of questions about contemporary authors’ works, issues that make their work appeal to us as much as the classics. “...What do they see of the surrounding world, and what is the dream that fills the spaces of their active lives? They tell us all these things in their books.”

 

It’s as if Woolf knew I was reading the memoir Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House, 2014), a children’s title by Jacqueline Woodson. Her dream, from childhood on, was to be a writer. Indeed, she is the author of many books for kids, including Locomotion, Each Kindness, After Tupac and D Foster, and Pecan Pie Baby. Brown Girl Dreaming takes readers about up to Woodson’s adolescence.

 

Born in the mid-sixties, Jacqueline Woodson, an African American, spends her youngest years in Ohio and a still-segregated South Carolina (“I am born as the South explodes,” she writes), the latter with her loving maternal grandparents. She later moves with her mother and her siblings to Brooklyn. Told in blank verse, the memoir is very much a middle-grade book, and grown-ups will find plenty to enjoy, too. NPR’s Terry Gross complemented Woodson for using poems to convey the story, which allows space around the words and makes the book easy to read. I finished the book in one sitting!

 

Children will relate to young Jackie's loving family, her best friend, childhood games, and her love of pop music. Kids may be surprised at—and reassured by—the National Book Award-winning author’s struggles at school, where she took a long time to learn to read and write because of an unnamed learning difference (“the words twist/twirl across the page”). If, like me, they are not Jehovah’s Witnesses, they’ll learn a little something about that religion; Woodson’s grandmother, an ardent believer, got the grandkids involved. (“I thought I was saving lives,” Woodson told Terry Gross.) Above all, the transformative power of words and stories shines through.

 

One of my favorite passages is the poem “On the Bus to Dannemora.” Jackie and members of her family are travelling upstate, from NYC, to visit a favorite uncle in prison. Needless to say, it’s a long, draining trip. The poem, however, takes its cues from the beckoning universalism of the seventies hit “Love Train”; bits of the O’Jays’ lyrics weave through a daydream Jackie has. As the scenery flashes by, she imagines the bus occupants and their loved ones are instead aboard “a whole train filled/with love and now the people on it/aren’t in prison but are free to dance/and sing and hug their families whenever they want.” We readers feel Jackie’s heartbreak, and we sense her spirit and strength, too.

 

That’s just what Jacqueline Woodson does in Brown Girl Dreaming: she turns a few hours of our day—the time it takes to read her book—into an unforgettable journey.

 

Brown Girl Dreaming, a strong contender for the 2015 Newbery Medal, won the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.