Audio book: Heartland

heartandby Sarah Smarsh
Read by the author.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some frank talk about abuse and drinking as well as a lot of swearing (including multiple f-bombs). It’s in the biography section of the bookstore, but I think a teenager might be interested in this.

This has been a big deal around the store, mostly because Smarsh grew up just outside of Wichita (and rumor has it she’s moved back here), and the places and people in it are pretty much staples in this community. But her story — the child of a teenage mom, growing up in a rural community on a family farm — belongs to much more than those of us here in Wichita. In fact, as I listened to her story — which sometimes got political, but mostly she kept personal — I heard echos of my own mother’s and grandmother’s story — married young, growing up in a small rural community, working hard their entire lives for just barely enough. It’s the story of many, many Americans.

Even so, Smarsh has one thing going for her that many poor do not: she is white. Sometimes, she acknowledges that fact, and tries to be more inclusive in her conclusions. But often, I felt like she was saying “look at me, look how poor we were, look how much I suffered, look at those scars” and I wanted to roll my eyes. Very few of us escape our childhoods without scars. And just because she grew up poor in Wichita and Kingman, doesn’t make her story exceptional.

Except she told it (and read it) well. So I have to give her that.

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Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

by Kelly Johnson
illustrated by Katie Kath
First sentence: “My great-uncle Jim had your flyer in his barn.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy swiped off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There’s some tricky words, and I’m not sure whether or not the epistolary format will turn off reluctant readers or encourage them. There’s a lot of fun illustrations and some good chicken facts, though. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore, but I’d probably give it to a confident 2nd grade reader.

Sophie Brown and her parents have just moved from the bustling city of Los Angeles to a farm in the middle of nowhere California. It was a move partially because of necessity — her dad lost his job and hasn’t been able to find a new one — and partially out of happenstance — Sophie’s dad’s uncle died and left him the farm. So, they’re trying to figure this whole thing out. And it’s not going terribly well. That is, until Sophie discovers a catalog for “exceptional” chickens. Turns out, that Uncle Jim was not only a farmer (he had a vegetable garden and some grape vines) but he raised, well, unusual chickens.

The chickens are not quite magical, and they’re based on real chickens, but they’re not quite normal either. (One lays glass eggs, for example.) Sophie is given instructions by the person who runs the catalog on how to catch and care for the chickens, but someone is trying to steal Sophie’s chickens. The question is: will she figure out how to keep the chickens (without divulging their magical properties)? And can she stop the thief from stealing her chickens?

The cleverest thing about this book is the format: Sophie’s story spills slowly over the course of the book through letters she writes to her dead abuela, dead great-uncle Jim, and the chicken place. (It’s kind of unusual her writing to dead people, but it works. She doesn’t really expect an answer back.) It’s a very one-sided story, and we only get snippets of things other than chickens: her mother’s free-lance writing, or her father’s failing search for a job. But, the tone is light, and there is a mystery to be solved with the chicken thief. But what really comes through is Sophie’s voice. She’s a determined child, someone who is willing to figure things out and solve problems. She’s spunky. And she’s half Latina. All of which makes for a charming book, a fun read, and a book worth checking out.