A Dozen Books about the African-American Experience

It’s Martin Luther King Jr Day tomorrow, and we’re probably celebrating by going to see Selma. And I know I’m a bit early for Black History Month, but I thought I’d do a list of books that celebrate the depth and breadth of the African-American experience. I don’t think I came up with one that’s really comprehensive, especially since I tend toward the historical fiction, but it’s a start.

Historical:

Sugar, by Jewell Parker Rhodes: “It’s 1871, and slavery is supposed to be over. However, for ten-year-old Sugar, on a sugar plantation in Louisiana, it doesn’t feel like it. Sure, the former slaves are free to go if they can, but they’re paid so little that it’s almost impossible for them to leave.”

Stella By Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper: “It’s 1932, North Carolina. The whole country is in the throes of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt is running for office. For Stella and her family, this doesn’t really matter. They’re more concerned about making ends meet. And avoiding the local Klu Klux Klan.”

Mare’s War, by Tanita S. Davis: “As they start driving, Mare starts talking about her past: what made her run away from Bay Slough, Alabama and join up in the Women’s Army Corps near the end of World War II. Her experiences in both a segregated south and a 1940s midwest, not to mention in the army. The chapters alternate between then — Mare’s history — and now — the road trip — and as the book unfolds, we learn more about all three of our characters”

Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith: “Ida Mae Jones has always wanted to fly. Ever since she was put behind the wheel of her daddy’s plane and taught how, she knew that this was what she was born to do. Except, she’s an African American and lives in the outskirts of New Orleans. Not only can she not get a pilot’s license because she’s a woman; she can’t get one because she’s the wrong color.”
March: Book One, by John Lewis:This is a slim graphic memoir, telling the first part of Congressman John Lewis’s story. This volume starts with his childhood in Alabama, and goes through the Nashville sit-ins that he participated in. My favorite thing about this memoir was the framing: It opens with Lewis waking up the morning of Obama’s first inauguration, and the story unfolds as Lewis is remembering his path to D.C. as he tells it to a couple of constituents who have stopped by his office.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham, by Christopher Paul Curtis: “: This was a terrific book — a wonderful portrayal of a black family in early 1960s Flint, MI. It was hilarious (all the way through the end): the narrator called his family the “Wacky Watsons” and they were.”

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson: “Her childhood begins in Ohio, but mostly it’s spent in South Carolina, with her grandparents, and in Brooklyn, where her mother finally settled with Jacqueline and her brothers and sister. I kept trying to figure out the timeline (if she was born in 1963, then it must be…) but eventually, I just gave up and let myself get absorbed in the story.”

No Crystal Stair, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson: “The book follows Lewis and his family — his parents, and a couple of his brothers — through most of the 20th century, beginning in 1906, through his many failed ventures to his inception and success in the bookstore. It’s fascinating to read and think about: Lewis’s big thing was that black people can’t stop being Negros — that is, defined by white people — until they know their history. Which means: they need to read. And read about their people.”

Contemporary:

Out of My Mind, by Sharon M. Draper: “Melody is very, very smart. She’s known words and ideas and concepts since she was very little. She loves music, and can see colors when it plays. But, she has no way to tell anyone any of this. Melody has cerebral palsey, and while she can hear and understand, she just can’t communicate. Which is incredibly frustrating to her.”

Peace, Locomotion, by Jacqueline Woodson: “The book is a series of letters from Lonnie — aka Locomotion — to his younger sister Lili. They’ve been put in different foster homes after a fire killed their parents. The loss is still there, at least for Locomotion, and he’s made it his “job” to help Lili not forget his parents.”

Ghetto Cowboy, by G. Neri; “Living in Detroit, twelve-year-old Cole and his mom are scraping by. Sure, he doesn’t go to school that often, but he’s okay. Until the day he gets caught, his mom flips, and drives him to Philadelphia to live with a father Cole has never met. Once he gets to Philly, angry about being abandoned (as he sees it), by his mom, he decides he will have nothing to do with his father, or the stables he runs in North Philly.”

Saving Maddie, by Varian Johnson: Joshua Wynn is a good guy. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t party, he doesn’t have sex. He chooses leading his church’s youth group over playing on the school basketball team. Granted, he’s the preacher’s kid, and there’s an enormous amount of pressure on Joshua to be good. And Joshua’s mostly okay with that.  That is, until Maddie Smith — his best childhood friend who moved away when she was 13 — moves back into town.”

So, I know I left off a lot. What are some of the best ones?

7 Memorable Author Events

Stephen King was in Wichita Friday night. It was a huge deal (thankfully, I was tucked away in a back corner and didn’t have to deal with the angry people) for which thousands (literally) of people turned out. Was it a great event? For a lot of people, yes. For me? Not so much. We were talking on the way to the event about which authors we’d individually REALLY like to see, ones that we’d go to great lengths to see. Which got me thinking about some of the best author presentations I’ve seen in the past 5 years or so. (As a side note: I really didn’t go see authors before then. A lot of it was little kids, but some of it was I just wasn’t involved that way. That part of my reading experience has changed dramatically with a job at the bookstore.)

I’m defining “best” in an entirely personal way. For me, it’s something I can still remember, even years later,as a fun and rewarding experience.

Eoin Colfer: I’ve never been a big fan of his Artemis Fowl books, but he was coming to the store, and I was curious. I’m SO glad he went; he was hilarious. And entertaining. And completely knew how to work his crowd.

Rick Riordan: Before Stephen King, this was the biggest event I’d been to; it was impressive how many fans were in the room. I wish I had gone to see him before he got really huge because I would have liked to chat with him, or get a picture with him, but this was the way the cards fell. Even so, Riordan knows his crowd, knows how to give a great presentation, and had all of us eating out of the palm of his hand. So, it was okay.

Gabrielle Zevin: I think this one sticks with me mostly because I had seen Kristopher Jansma the night before and he was awful. But, she was lovely. She was interesting, she was funny, she had good things to say, and she interacted with the audience in a way that made us feel welcome and a part of the experience. She was so wonderfully gracious afterward, as well.

And a few author meets through KidlitCon:

Scott Westerfeld (2011) was amazing. His presentation (which I saw twice that year, interestingly enough) was fantastic, he was delightful and kind to all of us (I remember standing in a circle chatting with him and a few other people and thinking to myself, “I’M TALKING WITH SCOTT WESTERFELD!! THIS CAN’T BE REAL!”). I would love to go to another event of his again.

Maggie Stiefvater (2010): Okay, so I didn’t actually take time to meet her, mostly because I was shy and intimidated. BUT, her talk was influential enough that I actually took the time to pick up her books. And became a fan. I’d love a chance to see her again, so I could chat with her and get a picture with her.

Maureen Johnson (2012): Her presentation at KidlitCon was…. weird. But I’m counting this because I made such a fool of myself in front of her at the Austin Teen BookFest in 2011 and I completely (almost) redeemed myself. A group of us stayed after to chat with her and Robin Wasserman and it was a LOT of fun. She’s very much like her online personality: weird, deadpan, and very very funny.  And yes, if I ever got a chance to see her again, I’d go.

Mitali Perkins (2014): I didn’t get a picture with Mitali, either, though I did talk to her after her presentation. (I don’t know why I asked. Doh!) I think the main thing about these presentations is that I like people to be organized, and informative about themselves and their writing, and to draw the crowd in. Mitali did all of that and then some. She was gracious and funny and a delight to listen to.

So who are some authors I’d still like to see? Shannon Hale, beyond her floating head, of course. John Green would be a trip and a half. Megan Whalen Turner. Holly Black. Sarah Beth Durst. Anne Ursu. Jonathan Stroud.

Who have you seen that you’ve loved and/or who would you like to see?

10 Books The Have Stayed With Me

This is kind of a cop-out this month (hey, it’s my birthday month; I’m allowed). I was tagged by Mother Reader and The Book Nest to come up with a list of books that have changed my life in some way. It took me a while to get started on this list, and to narrow it down, but once I got going, they came pretty easily.

So, in roughly chronological order:

1.The Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder — the first book I remember really loving.

2. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle — gave hope to a geeky, awkward girl

3. The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley — it was a toss-up between this and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Both helped me embrace feminism (or realize that I was already one).

4. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen — despised as a 14-year-old, I “got it” when I was 23, finally recognizing the genius of Austen. The A&E production helped.

5. Nine Parts of Desire, by Geraldine Brooks — my first introduction to the Muslim world. It touched and intrigued me and helped me find the similarities between Islam and my own religion, helping me realize that these people are human, too, way before 9/11 happened.

6. Beauty, by Robin McKinley — the first YA book I read as an adult. And it changed not only my reading, but (because of that) the whole direction of my life.

7. The Sorcerer’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling — this is here because if I hadn’t read it, then Russell and Megan wouldn’t have read it, and then we wouldn’t have become a family of Potterheads.

8. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan — I’m using this book, but it was really an article (that became a chapter) that changed the way I thought about food. And inspired me to make homemade bread every week.

9. Austenland, by Shannon Hale — my first ARC as a blogger. (And a good book, as well.)

10. Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher – the first time I was moved enough by a book to write the author. A powerful story.

What would be on your list?

10 Books By Women (About Girls) That Boys Should Read

Shannon Hale (love her!) went on a rant a week or so ago that got me thinking. There was a long chain, but the culmination of it was this tweet:

So, I’m offering some good books by women, featuring girls, that I think boys should read (and might even like!). I’m splitting the list: five middle grade books and five YA ones.

1. Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage: A girl named mo, some fantastic quirky characters, and a murder mystery to solve. “In addition to murder, this book has everything: drama, car racing, suspense, plucky kids, arch-enemies, robbery, unrequited love, and karate.  It’s everything Southern, but the pecan pie. (And I’m sure that would have shown up, had the book been set at Thanksgiving instead of during the summer.) There’s a little something for everyone here, which makes any book appealing.”

2. The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall: Yes, it’s about four sisters and their summer at a cottage in Maine. HOWEVER, they are some pretty interesting and hilarious girls who get into some pretty interesting and hilarious situations (Batty and the bull will forever be one of my favorite book scenes.) AND there are two (almost three!) more books to read.

3. Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper: I put this on here not only because it’s an excellent book (and because author of color PLUS disabled), but because C’s 6th grade language arts teacher read it aloud, and the class loved it. So I’m not guessing at this one. “It’s a treatise on the determination of one girl (and her family) and what that can do. It is, in many ways, a “message” book: disabled people are NOT different than the rest of us, and just because they look or act different doesn’t mean they are not worth getting to know and understand. But Draper presents this in such a way so that the book doesn’t feel like a heavy-handed message book. It’s heartfelt, and you end up both cheering for and crying with Melody as she recounts her experience.”

4. Tuesdays at the Castle, Jessica Day George: A castle that’s probably alive on some level, a spunky heroine, and a creepy prince who’s trying to take over the kingdom: how can you not thoroughly enjoy this book?

5. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle: I thought I needed a classic on here. Meg is a tentative heroine, but she’s a strong one, in the end. And the world L’Engle built is a fascinating one. Plus an adventure to rescue Mr. Murray from the evil planet? (There’s also Charles Walace and Calvin.)

6. Dangerous, by Shannon Hale: I wanted to make sure a Shannon Hale book goto on here, and I struggled to think of which one. Then I remembered (duh) her newest. Although my first reaction was less than stellar, this book has grown on me over the months: “In many ways, this was a breath of fresh air. One gets bogged down in the current trends in young adult/teen literature (read: paranormal or dystopian/post-apocalyptic) and to have something that is honestly science fiction with high tech gadgets, spaceships, and alien lifeforms. With honest-to-goodness average people doing techy, fun, science-based things.” I call it Hunger Games meets the Avengers.

7. Fire, by Kristin Cashore: It’s really the whole Graceling series. But I thought that while Graceling has more action, this one has more drama. And it gets into the head of women better. One of the reasons I think boys should be reading books about girls is so they can understand them. And this one goes a long way to getting into the psyche of a woman and how men treat her. But, if that’s not what you want, try Graceling instead. Either way, Cashore is a fantastic write.

8. Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson: Much like 13 Reasons Why, which C is required to read this year, this one should be required reading for everyone. It’s about date rape and depression and it’s harsh and difficult to read, but it’s one of those books that helps you understand that actions have consequences. A definite must-read.

9. Flygirl, by Sheri L. Smith: World War II, pilots, and a girl overcoming the obstacles of race and gender. ” I liked the challenges posed by the program, the obstacles she had to surmount in order to succeed in a man’s world. It was not only historically interesting, but had a universal appeal: what woman hasn’t faced the “you can’t do it because you’re a girl” and fought her way to success in whatever that is?”

10. I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister, by Amélie Sarn. This one seems odd to throw on the list. But the conflict between siblings is universal, and this one has stayed with me since I read it. Partially for the sibling conflict, but mostly for the religious elements. I’ve been thinking about hate and acceptance and conformity and how we act when we disagree with each other. It’s thought-provoking.

What other books should be on this list?

13 Books with LGBTQ Characters

I was fishing around for ideas for a book list this month, and C pointed out that Obama had proclaimed June LGBTQ Pride Month. She suggested I should do a list of books with good LGBTQ characters. I don’t read them often, but I thought that was a great idea.

Everything Leads to You, by Nina LaCour: The story of a Southern California girl who has recently graduated and is trying to figure out what to do next. She just happens to like girls. “I loved this book. Wholeheartedly and unabashedly. I loved the peek into the way movies work, the facts behind the fantasy. I loved the way Emi thought about characters and set design. And I loved how sometimes she let fantasy overtake her reality. The characters were so real, so deep, so complex, that I couldn’t help but be drawn into their lives.”

Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan: The story of two boys with the same name, one who is gay, and one who isn’t (but whose best friend, Tiny, is gay). I’m rereading this one for my John Green book group, and thoroughly enjoying it. I think it’s not just that Tiny Cooper is a wonderful contradiction, he’s a person who has thoroughly accepted himself for who he is. And that’s so refreshing.

Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray: “On the surface, the book is terribly shallow and stereotypical. Bray has lumped every single cultural reference and stereotype she could think of in this book: there is a lesbian, transgender, bisexual, stupid Southerner, aggressive Texan, Indian-American, black contestant. Honestly: none of the characters are likable, and the plot was fairly simplistic, which almost made it hard to get through.But, when you read it as a satire, the book works brilliantly.”

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz: A story of two boys in south Texas who realizes that their friendship is something more. I didn’t have a very good first reaction to this one, partially because it was so very guy, I think. I did like, however, the acceptance of Dante’s parents to his coming out. And the juxtaposition of that with the violence done to Dante by others in his down. I’m still not sure it needed to be an 80s book, though.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brun: The one adult book on this  doesn’t have a gay main character, but a beloved rather a beloved uncle who died of AIDS and the way that effects the family. “What I did like, however, was the exploration of June’s relationships. Not only with her uncle and his boyfriend, but also with her mother and sister as well. June’s perceptions of all those relationships were — partially because she’s 14 — off, sometimes drastically. And it’s a growing process for her to realize that everything isn’t quite how she perceives, that the truth of everything is multilayered and complex.”

On the Count of Three (aka The Bermudez Triangle), by Maureen Johnson: I’ve been trying to get people to read this one for a while now, because I remember it being a good book about friendship. There are three friends, one of whom is gay and is dating one of the other friends, and keeping it secret from the third. “It’s a good book; not my favorite of Johnson’s but a good, solid story, one where friends stick it out through thick and thin, and realize that sometimes being friends — just being friends — and having friends is the most important thing.”

Better Nate than Ever, by Tim Federle: Okay, so Nate isn’t openly gay; he’s just interested in musicals. And that’s a stereotype that drives me nuts; you can be straight and like musicals just like you can be gay and hate them. But I’m throwing it in, anyway. “Even with all the cliches and stereotypes, this wasn’t a terrible book. I think what saved it, for me at least, was Nate himself. Federle caught the voice of an awkward, insecure, hopeful kid someone who has been beaten down his whole life, and yet still remains optimistic about everything. He’s adorable, and heart-warming, and just plain fun. It was this that kept me reading, and when I finished, it was this that made the book a good one for me.”

Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy, by Bill Wright: A gay teen with a troubled life makes good. Sounds cheezy, but “even though this boy faces more challenges than you can shake a stick at (being a gay teenin NYC isn’t the cakewalk that you would suppose it is…), he is hopeful and optimistic and confident that he can do what it takes to be successful. It was ….well…. if not inspiring, then at least affirming.”

Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith: I’ll be up front here: this book is not for everyone. I didn’t particularly like it. BUT there are some positives: “That said, there were things to admire: actual sentences that made me laugh aloud. Or the fact that Austin’s (and Robby’s for that matter) sexuality was just a thing, and not an “issue”. Or six-foot-tall unstoppable praying mantises.”

Ash, by Malinda Lo: A retelling of Cinderella, where Cinderella doesn’t fall in love with the prince. “It’s similar enough to the fairy tale that you can recognize it for what it is. But Lo has created a world that is unique on it’s own, from the weaving in of original fairy tales and folk wisdom, to the twists on the love story.”

And as a bonus, some books with LGBTQ Parents:

Lola and the Boy Next Door, by Stephanie Perkins. “Lola’s two dads are also a delight: it’s nice to have a gay couple shown as stable and loving without making a big deal about it. (Additionally: they’re great characters in their own right.) “

Penny Dreadful, by Laurel Snyder. It’s a smallish part, but one of Penny’s friends, Twent, has two moms. Again, it’s just presented as a way to live life, and even though it’s small, it’s meaningful in that it’s just a fact of life.

The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, by Dana Alison Levy: I haven’t read this one (yet). But from what I’ve heard about it  — it made this summer’s Indie Next list — it sounds delightful. And they just happen to have two dads. “Peppered with life lessons about learning to admit you were wrong, trying something new, and standing up for your family, this book will make you feel like you are inside a group hug.” —Sara Hines, Eight Cousins, Falmouth, MA”

What did I miss?

15 Books That Should Be the "Next Percy Jackson"

I recently picked up a book that the publisher/my boss is hailing as the “next Percy Jackson”. It’s not. At least not in my book. Which got me to thinking: what should have been?

The first thing I need to do is figure out what makes Percy Jackson, well, Percy Jackson. I think a strong character/voice is a major thing; all my girls (and me, as well) have fallen for the loveable dork that is Percy. But it’s not just a strong main character, it’s a fantastic ensemble cast. My kids talk about Annabeth, Clarisse, Grover, Leo, Thalia, and Nico as much as Percy. I also think a strong opening: when I asked how The Lightning Thief opened up, the girls immediately responded: “Percy almost got killed!” It’s also pacing; Riordan knows how to intersperse action with a wee bit of romance (not too much!) and give us character development as well. It’s also — mostly — independent story arcs in each book, while keeping an over-arching story to tie the series together. And, at least in Percy’s case, it’s playing with mythology, exposing kids to something they wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to (all of my girls who love Percy have turned to our D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths to see what’s “real” and what’s not).

So, with that in mind, I came up with the following Percy Jackson read-alikes.

The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud: “This book oozes kid appeal, giving us adventure, suspense, mystery, humor, ghosts, and even swordplay. The Screaming Staircase will engage readers until the very last page.” (from the Cybils description.)

The Great Greene Heist, by Varian Johnson: My review hasn’t gone up for this one yet (it’s out May 27), but it’s a fun book. Good characters, only a hint of romance, and while it’s not fantasy action, Johnson keeps the pacing going. A, who normally only loves fantasy, ate this one up.

Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull: Admittedly, I didn’t like this one. But I’m going off the fact that every kid I know who has started this series absolutely loved it. There must be some appeal in that, right?

Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld: “It was an awesome, wild and weird ride, a fabulous adventure — no one writes nail-biting action like Westerfield — and a grand beginning to a story that has the potential to be absolutely amazing.”

Artemis Fowl, by Eoin Colfer: It’s been a long time since I’ve read this one, and  I gave up after the second book, I think. But I do remember it has a ton of action (as does the first in his more recent series, The Reluctant Assassin) I did write this: “Not very well written, but the world he has created is fantastic. That, and it’s interesting to be rooting for the ‘bad guy’.”

The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander: I think too many people have forgotten this one. Prydian is a fantastic world, and there are some amazing characters to visit with there. ” I think it’s because Alexander is a master storyteller, and he knows how to create characters that we can relate to and root for, ones that are flawed even in a black-and-white world.”

 The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, by Christopher Healey: I threw this one in here for the humor; Percy’s quite funny, as is this. “I’m not sure I’d call this book hilarious — no milk was ever snorted through my nose, a good benchmark, I think — but it was definitely amusing. From the chapter titles, all of which begin “Prince Charming…” (my favorite? “Prince Charming Walks into a Bar”. Sounds like a joke waiting to happen), to the silliness of the princes to the fact that it all just kinda sorta works out in the end, it was enough to keep a smile pasted on my face.”

Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities, by Mike Jung: “Yes, this is really over the top. WAY over the top. But, it worked for me. I liked the nod to the kind of superhero geekery that guys (and some girls) get into, knowing every little bit about the superhero they idolize. Jung just took it one step further and made the superhero a real, rather than made-up, person. Which, in my humble opinion, is way cool.”

The False Prince, by Jennifer E. Nelson: I compared it (unfavorable) to Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, but in retrospect, this is much more accessible and action-packed than MWT’s book is. ” The detailed world Nielsen creates is full of life, populated with mystery, twists and turns, and engaging and complex characters… Readers can’t help but cheer for [Sage], even as he struggles to come to grips with the ups and downs of a fate he doesn’t desire.”(from the Cybils description.)

The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart: A confession: I’ve never read this one. BUT, I did read the second book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Not fantasy, but definitely fun.

You’ve probably noticed, by now, that most of these are all-male main characters. (And mostly all-male authors.) Partially that’s because of the nature of Percy, and partially (for better or worse) it’s what I found when I started thinking about this. I did, however, find a handful of books with girl main characters that are just as fun and just as awesome as Percy Jackson is.

 Magic Marks the Spot, by Caroline Carlson: “I liked this one an awful lot, mostly because of the above reason. But — aside from the unnecessary letters that were written in cursive, which is a real turn-off for kids These Days; the book got much better after I started skipping them — I really enjoyed all of it. There was humor (Miss Greyson, the governess/chaperone, was hilarious), sword fighting, a wee bit of romance (but not overstated; it was between the adults), and most of all Hilary being Awesome.”

The Inventor’s Secret, by Andrea Cremer: I haven’t put a review up on this one yet, as I’m not quite done with it. But I’m having a blast. The romance is probably a bit too pronounced for the lower middle-grade crowd, but it’s got action, snark, great characters, and a fantastic alternate history/steampunk world.

 The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall: Possibly the “quietest” book on this list, it’s still fun of wonderful elements: spot-on terrific writing, a great cast of characters, and some non-fantasy action and tension. Hubby’s read it out loud a few times to different girls, and I have yet to get tired of hearing it. “

Into the Wild, by Sarah Beth Durst: “This was a fabulous book.  But it’s hard to convey in a review how wonderfully clever it is, how enjoyable it is to read. Durst takes every single fairy tale character and uses them in new and unexpected ways, making the old stories come alive again. I loved the struggle for free will and how the Wild uses character’s choices; I loved how Julie used the Wild against itself, in order to make it through her story; and I loved how endings and beginnings were used.”

Zita the Spacegirl, by Ben Hartke: I think this one’s on here because it’s fresh in my mind, having just read the last one in the trilogy. But, it’s also here because K took them to school, and she got all the kids (except for the one boy who refused to read it because it’s about a girl. Grrrrr.) excited about Zita and her adventures. Still, even though it’s a graphic novel, I think it fits. It’s awesome.

So…. how did I do? What ones did I forget?

10 Books With Meaning

My parents came to visit last weekend (which is why I didn’t get a list up) and she, C, M, and I were going the rounds about Daughter of Smoke & Bone, and she mentioned that she only read books with Meaning in them. I said, kind of off-hand, that I must have low standards, because that’s not what I immediately look for in a book. But then, Hubby jumped in and mentioned that that’s the first thing I talk about when I talk about Hunger Games: how it’s a commentary on reality TV. So, I thought I’d make a list of good books that I’ve read where the Meaning in them has stood out.

1. All the Truth That’s In Me, by Julie Berry: It’s about how we can transcend adversity, and find strength within ourselves to withstand. Especially when we know we’re on the right side.

2. Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Septys: About keeping hope in the face of dire situations, and how humans and survive — if only barely — the worst of atrocities.

3. The Giver, by Lois Lowry: C actually suggested this one. It’s about choice and freedom and what each of those mean.

4. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery: Honestly, I don’t remember much about this, except that I liked it a lot. I’m assuming that since I wrote in my review that it was “full of Philosophy and Art and the Meaning of Life” that it has some sort of Meaning to it.

5. A Song for Summer, by Eva Ibbotson: A story about Beauty and Art and how it brings us together as people.

6. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green: John is the King of Meaning; most of his novels are about Something. I call this the cancer book, but it’s really about living life, and not being afraid of what comes after.

7. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel: It’s been a long time since I’ve read this, but what I remember it’s about Truth and how we can know — or at least believe — what is and isn’t True.

8. The Prince Who Fell From the Sky, by John Claude Bemis: Shades of classic animal stories (“Watership Down” and “Jungle Book”) and the fierce protective nature of a mother shows for her child lend a human-ness to this story.

9. A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness: It’s another cancer book, one in which we learn the power of stories. Which I think it a good Meaning in itself.

10. Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork: It’s Marcelo who is acting the questions, and exploring the meaning of life and religion. I said this: “It’s a deep book, one full of difficult questions and tough answers. And yet, as I finished it, I was surprised at the love and the hope that radiated from it, which brought tears to my eyes.”

What do you think? Any meaningful fiction books that I missed?

10 Books With Female Leads and No (or Little) Romance

I was talking to one of my coworkers a week or so back, and she said something to the effect of  “What I really wish is that there were more YA books out there where the female main character doesn’t have a romance.” Which got me thinking: how prevalent is this? How many books out there where you have a female main character, and she doesn’t have a love interest.

The answer? Not many. As I set about combing my lists for books like this, I found that most — especially in speculative fiction, interestingly enough — the female main character has a love interest. And not only that, often she NEEDS the love interest to feel complete.

I’m not saying here that I don’t like romance as part of my story; I do, when it’s done well (read: not love at first sight) and when it adds something to the story. For that reason, I’ve added a few books where there is a romantic element, but it’s not the central focus of the story.

So, with that (and in no particular order), 10 books with girls and no/little romance.

1. Beauty Queens, by Libba Bray: It’s been a while since I’ve read this one, but from what I remember, the point of this wasn’t falling in love. The point is to mock contemporary culture.

2. Dairy Queen, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock: I think there might be a romance between D.J. and Brian, but I’m not sure it really is in this one. (Another long time since I’ve read it.) What I do remember is D. J. being a strong personality, and the way she gender-bends by playing football is worth some bonus points.

3. The Latte Rebellion, by Sarah Jamila Stevenson: A book about a mixed-race girl trying to raise race awareness. Not a shred of romance here at all.

4. The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchet: You’d think, from the cover, that the Nac MacFeegle are the main characters of this one, but Tiffany Aching is. And, possibly because she’s only nine, there’s no romance. So, maybe it doesn’t count. But, if I remember right: she manages the entire series, holding her own, standing up for what she does and believes in.

5. Flygirl, by Sherri L Smith: A historical novel about one of the women service pilots in World War II. An African American woman, at that. No romance.

6. Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore: I’m cheating giving you a third in a series, especially since the other two are so fantastic. But, out of the three, this is the one without the romance. Bitterblue is too broken (thanks to her father, who is evil incarnate) to truly have a romance, so even though there is a guy, it’s not the central focus of the novel.

7. Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer: It’s the end of the world, and Pfeffer doesn’t have our main character falling into the arms of a boy. Instead, she hunkers down with her family and works to survive.

8. The Impossible Knife of Memory, by Laurie Halse Anderson (Also: Wintergirls and Speak): Anderson writes girls who deal with their own problems, whether they be date rape, anorexia, or PTSD. They don’t need a guy — even if Finn does show up in Haley’s life, and there is a romance — to help the find answers. So, I’m including this one, even with the Finn story, because Anderson knows how to write complex female characters.

9. The Tyrant’s Daughter, by J. C. Carleson: Laila has a boy interested in her, and she even kisses him but for the most part, she’s more interested in figuring out her mother’s manipulations and her country’s problems and trying to understand American culture than in being in love.

10. Cold Fury, by T. M Goeglein. Yeah, there’s a boyfriend, and a wee bit of a romance. But the main focus of this series is Sara Jane and her mafia connections, as well as finding out what happened to (and saving) her family. She’s tough, and she doesn’t need a guy.

Are there any others? What did I forget?

20 Middle Grade/YA/Teen Books Adults Should Be Reading

A couple of Sundays ago Watermark had our annual Book Club Sunday (held on Super Bowl Sunday, because, you know, we’re all really into football). One of my managers asked me to come up with a list of kids’ books the adult book clubs should be reading. I never did get a chance to give the presentation at the event (things went long and/or they forgot they’d asked me), but I thought this would make a great blog post. I know I’m mostly preaching to the crowd here (we all love kids’ books, right?), but feel free to pass this on to your bookish adult friends who are gun-shy about reading something “just” for kids.

I decided that the three books adults always ask for, at our store at least, are 1) The Fault in Our Stars, 2) The Book Thief, and 3) The Hunger Games and I used those as my starting point.  Originally, I had picked not only books I’ve read and loved, but ones that are coming out soon. I’ve reconfigured it to only the ones I’ve read, just because I can.

Middle Grade books you should be reading: 

Counting By 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan. What an adult will get out of it: hope, some brilliant writing, and some intriguing characters. “On top of being absolutely refreshing with her subject matter, she never talks down to her reader. Sure, her sentences are simple — it is a middle grade book after all — but they are never simplistic. She respects her characters and her readers, and knows how to pick the best words to make the book flow, even when it’s being simple.”

 Doll Bones, by Holly Black. What an adult will get out of it: I think, actually, adults will get more out of this than kids. It’s a good, creepy story, but it’s more a growing-up story, of that transition between childhood and young adulthood. “The awkwardness, the feeling of being left behind by close friends, the desire to hang on to the things of childhood, the insecurity of facing the future: they’re all there. Dressed up in a Quest, an adventure, a ghost story. “

Three Times Lucky, by Sheila Turnage. What adults will get out of it: a rollicking story, a pretty-good mystery, and a handful of wonderful characters to fall in love with. “But the real reason to fall in love with this book — as I did — is because Turnage has created a wonderful couple of characters in Mo and Dale. In fact, all the characters, from Miss Lana and the Colonel, down to Mayor Little and aspiring lawyer Skeeter pop off the page, and it’s entirely because of the way Turnage writes.” Bonus: the sequel, Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, just came out. I can’t wait to read it.

If You Liked TFiOS (and you’ve read all of John Green’s other books)…

… for the contemporary element, try Winger, by Andrew Smith. Boarding school, boys, rugby, edgy and thoughtful at the same time. I had issues with the ending, but that was just me. “I found myself compelled by this. I was invested in Ryan Dean’s drama. I loved the camaraderie of the rugby team. I enjoyed Ryan Dean, dork that he was.”

… for the precocious kids who are actually smarter than you think they should be, try The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart. Another boarding school, but this time with a brilliantly smart girl at the center of it all, defying the norms, and breaking traditions. “So, here’s to the Frankie’s of the world: the girls who think outside of the box. Who invent neglected positives, and need people to understand (not just talk at) them. And here’s to the books that celebrate them.”
Bonus: E. Lockhart’s new book, We Are Liars, is due out in May. I’ve heard nothing but good stuff about it.

…. for the romance, try Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell. It’s historical, set in 1985, but it captures first love wonderfully. And both Eleanor and Park are delightful characters. “The most beautiful thing about this book, I think, is the slow development of Eleanor & Park’s relationship. It’s not instalove, it’s not all sparks and romance. It’s a friendship that develops into something more. And it’s complicated.” Bonus: I’ve heard most everyone say that Fangirl is better, but I haven’t read it. Yet.

OR

Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins. Because Paris. And Étienne St. Clair. And a smart, wonderful romance. “But I did enjoy the relationship between Anna and St. Clair, it’s heights and valleys, and it’s inevitable, swoon-worthy resolution. It’s not a simple book, and much like Maureen Johnson’s work, Perkins knows how to write a romance that deals with more even while putting the relationship front-and-center.”

…. for the thought-provoking ideas behind it, try Every Day, by David Levithan. It’s a trippy premise, but once you get past that, you find  that Levithan is writing about the human experience, and all its ups and downs. “As I was reading, I thought that it reads much like a John Green book: philosophical and introspective, with always the possibility of being pretentious. (Though I appreciated much of the musings, like how 98% of the human experience is the same and it’s the 2% that we’re always fighting over.) “




If you liked The Book Thief…
There are two authors you need to know about.
Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray. Stalin, concentration camps, solemn and gripping. “It’s a harrowing book, disturbing, and completely wrecked me. I could only read it in short chunks, interspersing it with something lighter, because that’s all I could handle. I couldn’t tell you about the writing, or the characters, or whether or not I liked it, because (like many Holocaust books), I couldn’t get past the fact that this was based on true events.”

Out of the Easy. New Orleans, 1950s. Gritty, intense, and compelling characters. “And Josie is such a great character to root for; I wanted her to get out, to succeed. I felt her heartbreak, her anger, her hope. Which is really the mark of a great writer. Sepetys knows how to engage the reader, to write in a way that makes these characters fully dimensional. And even though her subjects are not pretty, her writing is gorgeous.”

and Elizabeth Wein:

Code Name Verity. World War II, Nazis, British spy, woman pilots, and a friendship story that will rip your heart out. “Things this book is not:
Trite.
Another Holocaust book.
Boring.”

Rose Under Fire. Yet another World War II Holocaust story. But not like you’ve ever seen before. Strong women take the center stage and they will weave themselves into your life. “And yet, even though Wein captures the horrors, and the crimes, and the terribleness (I can’t seem to find a word strong enough) of Ravensbrück, it isn’t a hopeless, dark book.”

And one more (because it doesn’t fit anywhere else):

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton. It’s magical realism, which isn’t necessarily my thing. But this one feels more like an adult book than anything I’ve read in a long time. “There’s foolish love, unrequited love, passion, and most of all a magic running through it all. It’s the magic of Like Water for Chocolate: Things happen because of the passion.”

If you Liked Hunger Games….
I figure everyone knows about Divergent now, with the movie coming out. And even though I know they’rea a dime a dozen theses days, I thought I’d pick a few older/less-well known post-apocalyptic/dystopian books that have stood out in my mind.

Blood Red Road, by Moira Young.  Set in the distant future, where the world has gone to pot. It’s a slow starting book, but once it picks up, it’s gripping. “She’s given us a strong reluctant heroine, someone who leads without knowing it, inspiring greatness in both herself and those around her.” It’s the start of a series, and I have to admit that I’ve never gone back and read the others. But this one stands well enough on its own, and is worth the time.

Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld. This is the one I’ve had the most success with, at least with kids. They read the Hunger Games, and come looking for something else, and I throw this one at them. And, they usually love it. It’s because it’s smart, fun, and observant. “In addition to romance and adventure and typical end-of-the-world stuff (I loved all the descriptions of the Rusties), Westerfeld has some interesting observations about beauty and society.” First in a series, but honestly, this one’s the best.

5th Wave, by Rick Yancey. ALIEN INVASION. Do I really need to say more? “” There are no magical or supernatural powers, no high-tech blow-em-up sequences, no kidnapping. Just good-old-human grit. And there’s a LOT of that.” It’s also a first in a series, I think, but it stands remarkably well on its own.

Fantasy series worth dipping into:

Daughter of Smoke & Bone, by Laini Taylor. “I adore Taylor’s storytelling. It’s dark and sinister and yet so very lovely all at the same time. It’s a twisting, meandering sort of story, and yet nothing superfluous or out of place.” Bonus: if you start this one now, you won’t have to wait for the third, Dreams of Gods and Monsters, which is out in April.

The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater. “There’s just something eloquent in this book: it’s not that its prose is beautiful; I can’t thing of a single passage that stood out. But rather, Stiefvater is eloquent in her simplicity. There’s nothing outstanding about any of the characters individually, and yet as a whole they become remarkable.” There’s only two out in the series — out of a projected four — but honestly, it’s worth picking up and devouring, if only for the way Stiefvater writes.

Graceling, by Kristin Cashore. “I loved the action — Cashore has a way with words that vividly portrays action, and I was on the edge of my seat most of the time. Which brings me to point number two: I loved the tension, the twists and turns.”
Thankfully, this series is complete, so you can read one right after the other. I envy you that experience.

Demon’s Lexicon, by Sarah Rees Brennan. “The only real drawback is that one of the main characters, Nick, is so very unlikable. It’s a turn off at the beginning of the book; you just want to smack the kid upside the head. But, give it time: he will grow on you, he does have a few redeeming qualities. And then there’s Alan, who’s an enigma: he keeps secrets from Nick, he’s up to something, but you never quite know what. They’re an interesting and appealing pair, these brothers.” Again, another complete series. Especially good, now that I think about it, for fans of Supernatural. More people should know about this one.

Okay, that was 20. What did I miss? What else should be on this list?

10 (Really Good) Books That Didn’t Make Our Cybils Shortlist

I know this is a bit late. And things have moved on to awards season (yes, I am avidly reading Heavy Medal and I squeed — and put a bunch of books on hold! — when Battle of the Books announced their line-up). But when I sat down to do this month’s list, I realized that here was an opportunity to highlight some of my favorites (ones that were really good, even if they weren’t perfect) that we didn’t all agree on. (They are roughly in the order of excellence. In my opinion, anyway.)

1. The Vengekeep Prophecies, by Brian Farrey: “There’s so much to love in this book. Jax is a terrific character: a bookish kid (I love that he’s wearing glasses. I know it’s a little thing, but I do love it.), an unwilling hero, and yet he finds a way to outsmart the more Savvy characters and Save the Day.”

2. The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu: “This was a lovely, lyrical book; Ursu is a magnificent, quiet writer. She knows how to evoke a feeling and a place — the forest is dark and magical and calming.”

3. Parched, by Melanie Crowder: “That said, the writing was gorgeous. And I have to give Crowder props for setting a dystopia book in an African-feeling setting.” I think out of all the ones I read, this one I had the worst initial reaction to, but I can’t stop thinking about.

4. How to Catch a Bogle, by Catherine Jinks: “[T]he combination of a clever take on the paranormal and the plucky character of Birdie was enough of a combination for me to fall head over heels for this one.”

5. Pi in the Sky, by Wendy Mass: “I really enjoyed Joss’s learning of evolutionary science. And physics and chemistry as well. And I thought Mass was clever to frame it as a fantastical adventure. It made the science less… boring.”

6. The Year of Shadows, by Claire Legrand: “Olivia was dark and grumpy and prickly and perfect for a ghost story. Additionally, I loved the musical setting for this — the concert hall, the strains of orchestral music (it needs a soundtrack!) running through the story; in the endnote, Legrand talks about choosing pieces to fit the mood of Olivia’s life, and being familiar with many of the pieces, I think she did fabulously.”

7. The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle, by Christopher Healy: “How will the League of Princes handle this? Well, much like they do in the first book: with of silliness, laughs, luck, and heart. Yeah, sure, this is more of the same as the first book, but why mess with a good thing?”

8. Fortunately, the Milk, by Neil Gaiman: “I enjoy Gaiman’s stuff normally, but I really do think I prefer his whimsical works for younger kids.”

9. Neptune Project, by Polly Holyoke: ” I’ve read books about exploring the ocean as an option for when global warming takes over and turns this planet into one gigantic mass of water, and I’ve read books that deal with genetic mutation of people (and I think I’ve read one that combines the two in some search for Atlantis, now that I think about it), but this one struck me as unique.”

10. Magic Marks the Spot, by Caroline Carlson: “There’s more to this book — magic and treasure and an Enchantress and a Wicked Parent — but really, what I loved most about this book was that Hilary set out to be a pirate and succeeded ON HER OWN TERMS.”

There you have it. For other favorites that didn’t make the shortlist check out the post at the Cybils website.