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December 2016

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.