The Conference of the Birds

by Peter Sis
First sentence: “
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Content: There’s nothing. I found it in the kids poetry section, but it’s more an adult poem; something to ruminate on. So I moved it to the adult poetry section.

So, I blame Books on the Nightstand bingo for this. I started my card back in May, and the one I ended up with has a square for “written for adults but with illustrations”. I had no idea what to do with that. Then, we got a competition of sorts going at work (we all have bingo cards going and the first one to blackout wins… something), and I was doing inventory in my sections (the kids books are basically my fiefdom. Seriously. I have had  many coworkers tell me they just “don’t mess with Melissa’s sections”.) and discovered this book. It’s not a children’s book, so it fits the bill: adult book, with illustrations (but not a graphic novel).

Bascially, it’s an adaptation of a 12th-century Sufi poem, about an epic flight of birds, who fly through thick and thin, through days, through the deepest despair, in order to find their True King, Simorgh. You can pretty much sense the allegory dripping off of this poem (Deeper Meaning for my mother). And I’ll admit: I needed to read this poem this week. It gave me the reminder that I can get through all the valleys of my life, and maybe there will be fulfillment in it all.

But, what I truly loved was Peter Sis’s art. The book itself is gorgeous: thick pages, that are just luxurious to touch (and should be, with such a high price for a slim book). And the paintings were done in muted earth tones, with layers of depth to them (at least to my untrained eye). It’s a book I could imagine going back to when I just wanted to page through something lovely.

It’s not something I ever would have picked up on my own, so I’m grateful for the extra push from the bingo game. Sometimes getting outside of your comfort zone is a good thing.

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Enchanted Air

by Margarita Engle
First sentence: “When my parents met, it was love at first sight.”
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Content: It talks indirectly about drugs, sex, and teen pregnancy, as well as the violence of war, but it doesn’t dwell on that. It’ll be in the children’s biography section of the bookstore

I noticed that Abby had read this one and liked it, so I pulled it off my pile to give it a try. I mostly wanted something I could finish in one sitting, and this one — being a memoir in verse — fit the bill.

I didn’t expect to be thoroughly delighted by it.

Margarita is the daughter of a Cuban immigrant and the son of Ukranian holocaust survivors. Needless to say, she had an interesting story to start. Add to that the conflict in the 1950s with the Cuban revolution and the subsequent cold war, she definitely had  a story to tell. But: she chose to tell it through travel, through depictions of the island itself (which she described so lushly) as well as her family’s vacations to Mexico and Europe. She portrayed herself as an awkward child, caught between two countries and then unexpectedly cut off from half of her family. I can only imagine what her mother felt.

Elegantly told, beautifully imagined, it’s a love story to the power of words and images and home. (And I’m glad that her hope in her afterward for more normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba may slowly be coming to fruition. I would love to visit there someday.)

Crossover

by Kwame Alexander
First sentence: “At the top of the key, I’m MOOVING & GROOVING, POPping and ROCKING — “
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Content: It’s poetry, which is a plus and a minus: plus, because it means it’s a quick read. Minus, because you have to convince kids that it’s okay to read poetry. There’s some kissing, but I’d give this to kids ages 10+. It’ll be in the Newbery section of the bookstore (yes, we do have one!).

I really didn’t know what to expect going into this. I’m sure it would be good — it won the Newbery, after all — but is it one of those good books that are just all style and no substance?

Because this book does have style. You can tell that right from the first page. Alexander’s not only writing a novel in verse, he’s playing with form. There’s style to these poems, it’s not just words on a page; they sometimes (like in the opening poem) leap right off the page. (There’s one poem, about 2/3 of the way though, that can be read in two different directions. I love that!) But, there’s also substance as well.

Twins Josh and Jordan Bell are inseparable, both in life and on the basketball court. Sons of a retired (due to injury) Euroleague player, basketball is their Sport. Their Religion. Their Life. But, during their 8th-grade year, things change. They drift apart, mostly because Jordan — JB as he wants to be known — starts going out with a girl. And their dad has serious heart problems. All of this weighs on Josh, and he lets it interrupt his game.

It’s a simple story, but one with tremendous amounts of heart. Josh is a complex character, who worries about his parents, misses the connection with his brother, and wants to be the top of his game. And yet, he has a temper, one that gets in the way of his wants and desires sometimes. There’s a depth to him that makes him real, which I appreciated it.

I did have a couple of complaints… I didn’t like the portrayal of the girlfriend, but I do understand it’s from Josh’s point of view, and he didn’t really like her intrusion into the relationship with his brother. So, I can understand why she was a bit of a caricature.) The other thing I didn’t really care for — and this is a spoiler — was the dad dying in the end. I did like that there wasn’t a “neat and tidy” ending, but it was a bit, well, Dramatic.

But aside from those two little complaints, I loved this one. I loved the style and the characters and just immersing myself in this world. For the Bells, the highest compliment is that they are Da Man. And this book is definitely that.

Red Butterfly

by A. L. Sonnichsen
First sentence: “Mama used to have a piano
with an on/off switch
and a dial to make drums beat.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: It’s pretty long, which will turn some readers off, though it’s in verse, which makes it easier to read (but also might turn readers off). The Chinese words, while spelled phonetically, might also be a deterrent. It’s in the middle grade (grades  3-5) section of the bookstore.

Kara was abandoned at birth, and in China, that generally means certain death. Especially since she is a girl and born with a deformed hand. But a kind, elderly American woman living in Tianjin took Kara in. Now, eleven years later, Kara is wondering why Mama never leaves the house, why she has never gone to school, and why they can’t leave to go join Daddy in Montana.

It takes a while for things to spill out: Mama is always telling Kara to be content with what she has, and not long for something more, but things do eventually come to light. In China, one needs papers to be a legal resident. Kara, because she was abandoned and rescued, has none. And so, they’ve been in hiding all these years.

On the one hand, I enjoyed this peek into China, especially the lives of those children who are neglected and abandoned to the orphanages because of the one-child laws. It’s told in verse, which suits Kara’s contemplative nature and her desire to figure out who she is and where she belongs.  I liked the people Kara met and her interactions in the orphanages.

However, while I got to know Kara and her story, it felt, well… too American. An American pulled her off the streets when she was a baby. She befriended a New Zealander worker in the orphanage (not American, but English-speaking/Western). She ended up in Florida with a second adoptive family. There were Chinese characters, but they were almost afterthoughts in Kara’s life. And while I understood why, I was sad not to get to know China or the Chinese.

It wasn’t bad, overall, but it wasn’t my favorite either.

Fables for Our Time

by James Thurber
First sentence: “Once upon a Sunday there was a city mouse who went to visit a country mouse.”
Content: There’s nothing overt, and no swearing. It’d probably end up in the poetry section of the bookstore.

I think I’ve vaguely heard of Thurber before this book was picked for my in-person book group. But I’d never really paid him much attention. So I didn’t really have any expectations going into this.

It’s a series of short fables followed by illustrated poems (the poems are by other people). Pretty simple, right? The fables are pretty standard: animals doing human-like things. But the twist was that they had pretty… unusual… morals.

Things like “It’s not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.”

And: “Early to rise and early to bed makes a male healthy and wealthy and dead.”

And: “Never allow a nervous female to have access to a pistol, no matter what you’re wearing.”

And: “The male was made to lie and roam, but woman’s place is in the home.” (The title of that one was “The Stork Who Married a Dumb Wife.”)

And at that point, I decided that Thurber — no matter what time period he’s writing in (the 1930s) is horribly sexist and doesn’t deserve to be read.

That’s a bit harsh. I get that these are satire (which I have a hard time with, anyway), and that they’re supposed to be stereotypes. But STILL. I was more impatient than amused. Stop it already with the sexist crap.

Brown Girl Dreaming

by Jacqueline Woodson
First sentence: “I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital Columbus, Ohio, USA — a country caught between Black and White.”
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Content: There’s nothing objectionable. And it’s even an easy-ish read. Sure, it’s poetry, but it’s not difficult. Hand it to anyone with an interest in writing, kids, and history. It’s in our middle grade biography section at the bookstore.

I’m not quite sure where to start on this one. It seems We’ve (the collective we, here) been inundated by memoirs and biographies of celebrities, People of Note, and at first glance Jacqueline Woodson’s new book just falls into that pit of “celebrity” (of a sort) biographies.

Except, it’s not so much a biography or memoir as it is a reflection upon a childhood. Woodson makes her childhood an Everyperson experience, something that the reader can readily identify with, even if they didn’t have her exact same experiences.

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.

And absorbed I was. Woodson wove historical elements into her story — sit-ins in the South; the way her grandmother felt about the way she was treated in stores by white people; music that was playing on the radio — all of which helped put her personal story in a larger framework. I could easily forget I was reading a memoir; it felt so much like a novel.

Part of that, too, was the form. Written in free verse, the memoir took on a lyrical quality. There were moments, especially toward the end, where I was moved by her insights not only in her life, but for Life in general.

One more thing: I appreciated her portrayal of religion. I get the sense she’s not a practicing Jehovah’s Witness anymore, but she portrayed the religion of her grandmother and her own childhood with respect. It was neither good nor bad; it was just a part of her life. And I found that refreshing.

Highly recommended.

Poisoned Apples

by Christine Heppermann
First sentence: “The action’s always there.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing and one (very well placed) f-bomb. The content is about female empowerment, so if you give it to younger readers, be ready for questions. (Not a bad thing at all!) We have a kids poetry section at the store, but this doesn’t really fit. I could put it with the adult poetry but it might get lost. So, I might just shelve it in the YA section (grades 6-8), though it could go for any age.

I picked this up because Anne Ursu (whose work I’ve enjoyed, and who is fast becoming one of my favorite people on Twitter/Tumblr) told me I needed to. I don’t generally read poetry; I’ve never quite “gotten” it, and I don’t particularly want to curl up with a collection of poetry. But I couldn’t resist the draw of modern fairy tale retellings, even if it was poetry. (Plus: Anne Ursu!)

I didn’t know what to expect, but what I got was a weird, wonderful, empowering collection of poems. Hepperman mixes fairy tale retellings with modern issues, from anorexia and photoshopping to the everyday over sexualization of women. It’s a seamless transition from fantasy to reality. One of my favorites was “Retelling”, which is about what the miller’s daughter should have done. Thankfully, Heppermann got a bunch of people to read this, so you don’t have to listen to me sum it up.

But my favorite, the one I texted a picture to M about, was this:

But what really makes this book (aside from the awesome poems) are the weird and wonderful photographs that accompany the poems. They add a fantastical element that just makes this slim collection absolutely perfect.

C has already devoured this several times over and has declared that we need to own it. I agree.