My Top Nonfiction Read in 2018

I don’t often get around to writing full-on reviews of the nonfiction I read, especially if it’s for adults.  Here’s a selection of my favorites from last year, handily separated into knitting and non-knitting books.


Faerie Knitting by Alice Hoffman & Lisa Hoffman – Short tales with intrepid, knitting girls and women and the wise witches they turn to for help, with a pattern for each story and beautiful photography with models dressed as the character wearing the item.

The Mitten Handbook by Mary Scott Huff – Mix-and-match your own mitten from variations on cuffs, bodies, and finger and thumb styles, or choose one of the many great pre-made patterns.  I couldn’t resist knitting the baby goldfish cracker mittens.

Vogue Knitting Ultimate Knitting Book A tome full of everything you’d want to know about knitting, with clear instructions and photography.

The Opinionated Knitter by Elizabeth Zimmerman – A classic from the woman who convinced American knitters that they could do it, consisting of a decade of her newsletters, with patterns re-knit, updated as needed, and photographed in color by her daughter.

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly – About time I got to this!

Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese – I’d been noticing this on the shelf at the library for years and finally took it home – lots of testing on the taste and effort difference between homemade and store bought food, with recipes and very entertaining writing. I was inspired and have been making my own yogurt at least most of the time since reading this.

Middle School Makeover by Michelle Icard – I didn’t make the school parent discussion of this, but it had good thoughts on dealing with common middle school struggles.

You Need a Budget by Jesse Mecham – I use the software, and have watched a lot of the videos, but the book has a nice summary of the theory, told with understanding and humor.  I still also refer to Elizabeth Warren’s All Your Worth, even if their philosphies on tracking money are completely opposite.

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12 more Cybils titles I loved

One of the things I love about the Cybils awards are the many books I get to try that I wouldn’t get around to otherwise.  One of the hardest parts is making a shortlist of only seven books, because I always love more than seven books (see my 2018 post and my 2016 post on the same topic).  Here, with links to my reviews if I have them, are a dozen more books that I wish we could have included:


The Adventures of a Girl Called Bicycle by Christina Uss

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

Bluecrowne by Kate Milford

Bob by Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older

Endling: the Last by Katherine Applegate

Ice Wolves by Amie Kaufman

The Lost Books: Scroll of Kings by Sarah Prineas

Nightbooks by J.A. White

Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword by Henry Lien

The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta

The Turning by Emily Whitman

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Cybils Finalists Announced!

Happy 2019!

The 2018 Cybils finalists have been announced!


Here are the titles that my panel selected for the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category:

Inkling by Kenneth Oppel

Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Snared: Escape to the Above (Wily Snare) by Adam Jay Epstein

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster by Jonathan Auxier

The Stone Girl’s Story by Sarah Beth Durst

Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain by Zac Gorman

Thanks to my fellow panelists for being such a great team to work with!

I was super geeked to find out that three of the books I nominated in other categories made it to the finals – a record for me.  Here they are:

The Tea Dragon Society by Katie O’Neill in Elementary/Middle Grade Graphic Novels
The Parker Inheritance
by Varian Johnson in Middle Grade Fiction
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland in Young Adult Speculative Fiction (and Tess of the Road, which I reviewed in the same post, also made it!)

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New Books at Christmas!

Here are the new books received for Christmas at our house. I’ve always enjoyed curling up with a new book after the gifts are opened, and it’s delightful to see my children carrying on the tradition.

My books:

My son’s books:

My daughter’s books:

What books did you get or give for the holidays?

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Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain

I’m not having a lot of time to write reviews with my kids home from school and seeing friends and family for the holidays, but here’s one more Cybils nominee review to tide you over until the finalists are announced next week.

Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain by Zac GormanThisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain by Zac Gorman. Harper Collins, 2018.

Thisby Thestoop was found as an infant, abandoned by the stoop of a dungeon, and named for a misinterpretation of the note – “Found this by the stoop”.  Like Wiley Snare, she’s grown up working in the dungeon, though her job is gamekeeper to the many and various creatures of the dungeon.  She travels around with her enormous backpack full of supplies, and her glowing slime friend Mingus in a jar.  Unlike Wiley, she doesn’t have any special talents for her job, but survives by taking lots of notes.

Just now, the big project is preparing for an inspection by the prince and princess of Nth: the well-liked, charming Prince Ingo and the very unpopular, even mean-spirited Crown Princess Iphigenia.  Then, Prince Ingo and Thisby’s unpleasant boss both go missing.  Thisby is Iphigenia’s only hope of getting out of the dungeon alive.  And as creatures from the Darkdeep, the even more dangerous realm below the dungeons, start to escape, Thisby’s goal of making it to the surface seems even less possible.

Michigan author and graphic novel artist Zac Gorman’s illustrations add a note of whimsy to the book, showing two girls with different shaped noses as well as numerous non-human dungeon inhabitants.  All humans in the book appear white, though dungeons do seem likely to produce pasty skin.  The book is focused on the difficulty that Thisby and Iphigenia have going beyond their differences in class and upbringing to come to a place of trust and friendship, even as their lives depend on it.  It’s also got a fine feminist theme to it –refreshing since most of the books I’ve seen that feel aimed at a D&D crowd also focus on the male characters.

This would of course pair well with Escape to the Above, as well The Dungeoneers.  The combination of humor and illustrations also reminded me of previous Cybils finalist Castle Hangnail.

This book has been nominated for the Cybils award.  This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.

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3 Holiday Picture Books + Bonus Craft Book

This year, I was given a last-minute request to read a Christmas book to the Girl Scout Junior troop. Here’s what I found on the shelves.

underthechristmastreeUnder the Christmas Tree by Nikki Grimes. Illustrated by Kadir Nelson. HarperCollins, 2002.
This is Coretta Scott King award-winning powerhouse of a team.  Nikki Grimes write 23 poems of Christmas time, centering on the African-American experience and illustrated beautifully as ever by Kadir Nelson.  We didn’t have time to read the whole book – I read a poem about an ice skating fantasy, since we’d gone ice skating as a troop in the past, and a funny one telling the Christmas tree that the popcorn and candy canes belonged to the child telling the poem.  With poems ranging from that humor to meaningful, this is one to look for.

Here Comes Santa Cat by Deborah Underwood and Claudia RuedaHere Comes Santa Cat by Deborah Underwood and Claudia Rueda. Dial Books, 2014. We read Here Comes the Easter Cat when it first came out, but I hadn’t read this one.  Like the other, the cat appears on the left page, holding up signs to communicate with the text, on the right side.  In this story, Cat has decided s/he is too naughty to get presents from Santa, so dressing up as Santa must be the only solution!  Can the narrator find a way to help Cat?  This is hilarious and touching, and went over very well with my group of fourth graders even though it’s probably aimed at a younger audience.

emmaschristmasEmma’s Christmas by Irene Trinkas. Orchard Books, 1988.
I dug back into my memory, when my good friend A- recommended this to me 20 years ago.  In this twisted picture book version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” Emma is a farmer’s daughter being courted by a very determined prince.  She’s just as sure, though, that life in a castle isn’t for her.  Will they find a way?  What will she do with the flocks of fowl and troops of dancers, lords, pipers, and drummers that keep showing up?  This was just background reading while the girls were crafting, but lots of fun. It looks like it’s really popular with teachers, as it makes for a very good multiplication lesson along with the silly story.

I also brought a couple of books on Kwanzaa, because the girls had been asking what it was, and my favorite winter solstice-y picture book, Lucia and the Light. Over the River and Through the Woodanother favorite for reading aloud to groups, was checked out, but I still enjoyed re-reading it myself when it came back!

Doodle Stitching: the Holiday Motif Collection by Aimee RayDoodle Stitching: the Holiday Motif Collection by Aimee Ray. Lark Crafts, 2014.
Not a picture book – I found this craft book at the library and have been selfishly keeping it at home for a couple of loan periods.  It’s filled with fairly simple embroidery designs, some with full projects like a sweet shop tea cozy or a stocking with a scene of cute woodland animals sledding, but also some just motifs with instructions that you could put on any project you want.  Many of them are Christmassy, but there are plenty of just winter designs and a full page of Hanukkah motifs as well.  My daughter and I are dreaming of doing some fun embroidery together over the holidays!

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The House with Chicken Legs

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie AndersonThe House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson. Scholastic, 2018.
Marinka has lived in the house with chicken legs all her life, helping Baba Yaga.  Others may see her as an ugly and dangerous hag, but Marinka knows her as kind and caring, if strict.  Every day, Marinka repairs the fence of human bones and skulls around the house and helps prepare a feast of mostly Russian food for the spirits of the newly dead.  Every night is a party as the spirits flock in, celebrating their lives, with Baba Yaga listening to their stories, helping them to distill what they’ll take with them from their lives as they pass beyond the Gate.  Every few days, the house moves, so that they can help the dead from another area.

It sounds like a nice life, but Marinka is tired of not being allowed beyond the fence and of friends that last only one night and are rarely her own age.  One night in England’s Lake District, she sneaks away, meeting a boy named Benjamin whose lamb she borrows for the night – only to have the house move away in the night.  It’s used to Marinka spending more time with it, and jealous of her new friends. The more Baba tells Marinka that she’s destined to be a Yaga herself, the more uncomfortable she grows, until a series of bad choices lead her to a very bad place indeed, on her own and with no choices that seem good.

Marinka was so unhappy, and the choices she made so clearly leading her on a path to even more unhappiness, that this wasn’t the most pleasant of reading experiences for me.  I appreciated that Marinka’s travels and attempts to make friends exposed her to people of many different cultures and ethnicities.  But I really loved the world-building here, with an international society of Yagas in their sentient, literally globe-trotting houses, as well as the positive way death is treated, enough so that in retrospect, my overall feelings for the book are quite positive.

Try Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll for another fun take on Baba Yaga.

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The Art of the Swap and The Magic Misfits: the Second Story

The Art of the Swap by Kristine Asselin and Jen MaloneThe Art of the Swap by Kristine Asselin and Jen Malone. Simon and Schuster Kids, 2018.
Hannah is the caretaker’s daughter in the Elms, a mansion in Newport, Rhode Island.  She annoys the docents by listening in on tours and correcting their mistakes – most of them don’t know the history as well as she does.  She’s fascinated with the mystery of the long-ago heist of the portrait of 12-year-old Margaret Dunlap, painted by Mary Cassat.  The portrait vanished just before it was officially unveiled in 1905, though a replica was made and now hangs in its place, on top of a large mirror.

One day, touching this mirror causes Hannah and Margaret – or Maggie – to change places or perhaps minds with each other.  Hannah thought she knew all there was to know about Maggie’s world – but it’s much harder than she thought to fit in, especially while trying to sneak where she shouldn’t to solve the theft that’s just about to happen.  Maggie, meanwhile, has lots of modern technology and attitudes about women to catch up on, all while trying to help Hannah from afar.  The book kept a light tone while still looking at the restrictions on people of all classes in 1905.

The Magic Misfits: the Second Story by Neil Patrick HarrisThe Magic Misfits: the Second Story by Neil Patrick Harris. Read by Christina Hendricks. Hachette Audio, 2018.
I haven’t read book one here, because just this one was nominated for the Cybils.  We open with Leila, locked in the closet of her orphanage, desperately trying to pick the lock in the dark so she can catch the tail end of Mr. Vernon’s magic show.  When she escapes, she’s adopted by Mr. Vernon and his husband, the other Mr. Vernon!  Flash forward to the present, where Leila and her adoptive brother Carter are members of a kids’ stage magic club, along with wheelchair-bound Ridley, siblings Ollie and Izzy with New York accents, and Theo with a British accent.  Together, they are the Magic Misfits, each with their own magic specialty.

Out of the blue, a member of Mr. Vernon’s similar childhood gang, the Emerald Ring, turns up.  She’s now Madame Esmeralda, famous stage psychic.  But is she back for the reason she claims to be?

This is fun and fast-moving, with a plot strongly reminiscent of Annie. It’s only slightly magical, and I was confused about the time period – the technology here stops at rotary phones, but we have an openly gay couple adopting children.  We definitely need more fun books with same-sex parents, though, so I’m not complaining!  NPH himself reads the magic instructions that appear between chapters, while Christina Hendricks ably narrates the story for the audiobook.  You’ll want to start with the first book, but this is definitely a fun series for the younger middle grade reader.

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The Truth about Martians and the Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray

Here’s a couple shorter takes on some more Cybils books, as I try desperately to keep up with my reading.

truthaboutmartiansThe Truth about Martians by Melissa Savage. Crown Books, 2018.
In 1947 Arizona, Mylo Affinito is still struggling to get over the death of his older brother, Obie.  He and his best friend Dibs, crush Gracie, and two other boys together try to investigate the mysterious large objects that crashed in a nearby field.  The adults and especially the Air Force are telling them to stay away, but a voice in Mylo’s head is asking for help.  The author takes first-hand accounts of the Roswell crash, lots of gee-whiz 1940s culture, and kids dealing with serious issues like grief and depression on Mylo’s part, an alcoholic and abusive father on Dibs’ part, and restrictive gender expectations on Gracie’s part, weaving them together into a story that’s strong on community and kindness – and a fair bit of alien contact, too. Though there is adventure, it’s more thoughtful than I would have guessed based on the cover.

TThe Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn GrayThe Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray by B.A. Williamson. Jolly Fish Press, 2018.
Gwendolyn’s curly red hair sticks out in the monochrome world of the Grey City where she lives.  She’s also not able to look into Lambents the way everyone else does at home and at school. One day, she accidentally grows bunny ears on a bullied girl, who then vanishes.  She finds herself on the run from a pair of men in bowler hats – but running leads her to the first fiction books she’s ever found, about the dashing pirate Kolonius Thrash.  Just when the bowler-hatted men are about to nab her, she’s led by siblings Starling and Sparrow into another world.  Here the story turns into a trippy world-hopping, reality bending experience, with them meeting Kolonius Thrash himself – a Black, teenaged pirate just the right age for sparks to fly between him and Starling.  Gwendolyn is described as having great powers of the imagination, but it was never clear to me whether what was happening was in her imagination, made real by her imagination, or her imagination allowing her to travel to a pre-existing world.  Despite this confusion, this was a very fun adventure.

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The Lifters by David Eggers

The Lifters by David EggersThe Lifters by David Eggers. Read by Dion Graham. Listening Library, 2018.
Granite Flowerpetal’s father named him Granite to be a strong name – but starting school in a new town, Granite has decided to try being Gran instead.  They’ve just moved to his great-grandfather’s collapsing house in the tiny town of Carousel, states away from their old home in Florida.  His parents – mechanic father and now wheelchair-bound artist and zoologist mother – are both out of work and hoping to find some work and lower living costs.

But their hopes seem likely to be dashed as there’s no work for the parents and no one in the small town needs a new friend – though Gran’s five-year-old sister Maisie seems to be doing fine.  Gran starts to fixate on the only kid who’s talked to him, the mysterious Catalina Catalan, who wears an RBG t-shirt with a flannel tied around her waist (I kinda loved 90s grunge being so romantically portrayed.)  He also befriends the school caretaker, known as the Duke, who plays his Cuban records for him and tells him about the town’s history as the leading manufacturer of hand-carved carousels, back when people cared about such things.

The town itself is collapsing – literally, as buildings fall into the ground.  It’s a highly divisive political issue, as none of the adults know quite what’s causing it.  A leading theory is that wild moose are rampaging through the town.

Then, Gran finds out part of Catalina’s secret – a network of underground tunnels made by the mysterious Hollows, which she’s trying to shore up and keep from collapsing.  But the collapses are becoming more and more frequent.  Can Catalina and Gran slow down their lifting work long enough to figure out why things are getting worse and stop them?  This book, like Maggie & Abby’s Never-Ending Pillow Fort, involves a global secret society of kids, but has – I’m going to say it – an even more uplifting ending.

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