At By Singing Light: Anniversary Guest Post

Hello friends –

I’m a day late in posting this, but I have a guest post of my favorite books of 2006 over at By Singing Light, to celebrate my friend Maureen’s twelfth blogging anniversary.  Head on over to congratulate Maureen!

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Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali

Saints and Misfits by S. K. AliSaints and Misfits by S. K. Ali. Salaam Reads, 2017.
Meet Janna, a teen girl trying to figure out her increasingly complicated life.  She’s  committed to wearing hijab as part of her mostly artsy, layered outfits (swim suits are a notable and awkward exception.) Her divorced parents observe their faith very differently – her now-remarried father mostly doesn’t, and gives her a hard time for her conservative clothing.

Janna struggles with a crush on a non-Muslim boy and her brother Muhammad falling for the most annoying, super-girly, upbeat-religious girl at the mosque.  But worst of all, the handsome cousin of her best friend, Fizz, tries to assault her during a party at Fizz’s house.  She’s beset with fear in case it should happen again, at the same time sure that no one would believe any allegations against a person with such a perfect public front.

At the same time, her character is rounded out by her sweet relationship with an older man in her apartment complex, Mr. Ram, whom she takes to play games at the senior center.  She also helps her uncle with the mosque’s web site, keeping it updated and editing the grammar on his “Ask the Imam” letters to standard English.  She also enjoys sneaking up to the roof of the school to eat halal gummi bears with her best friend there.

I started listening to this on audio and had to quit – the reader was one of those who slowed down for unnaturally clear and therefore awkward-sounding diction and used only one cadence for every sentence.  I was starting to hate the whole book – but once I switched over to print, Janna’s true, prickly-sweet personality was able to shine through.  Janna’s faith is an important part of the book, but any teen who struggles with friends, family and boys will find something to relate to here.

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Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson

I was planning to do another triple review in the interests of catching up, but have fallen to the reality of headaches and patrons with long reference questions (that last a much more pleasant reason!).  So more contemporary teen girls on the way soon, but a brief review of an excellent book for now.

Piecing Me Together by Renée WatsonPiecing Me Together by Renée Watson. Bloomsbury, 2017.Jade is a junior on scholarship to St. Francis, which she gets to via a long bus ride through Portland every day.  She’s one of the only Black students there, doing everything she can to someday get out of her neighborhood.  She’s worked especially hard at Spanish in hopes of being nominated for a service trip abroad.  Instead, she’s nominated for the local Woman to Woman program and assigned a mentor who keeps skipping their meetings.  Also this year, as she’s riding to school, she meets Sam, a girl from the poor white neighborhood on the way, and makes one of her first real friends at school.

Jade’s hobby is collage (I’d love to see some of the described collages), and this is also a metaphor for her life, as she figures out who she is and who people think she is or should be in all the areas of her life – from the people from the mentoring program who think she needs to be “fixed” in some way, to the difficulties fitting in with friends she no longer goes to school with, and even the differences in food from one circle to the next.  No one seems to want a girl from the ‘hood who is smart and cares about education but still loves Kool-aid and fast food.  Everyone has prejudices, and it’s inspiring to watch Jade learn how to navigate the differences and stand up for herself and other Black girls.  It made me all teary-eyed, and I need to go back and read Watson’s other books now.

This book has won all the awards – a Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King author award, and the Cybils Young Adult Fiction award – but I heard about it first from Brandy at Random Musings of a Bibliophile.

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Teen Boys in Diverse Historical Fiction

I know there are really no boy books or girl books, just people books.  But nevertheless, when working on our presentation on diverse books for Spring Institute, my friend Nakenya and I realized that our teen historical reading had only starred girls.  This was not the representative spread we were hoping for.

When I started looking, I found that there is a big reason I haven’t read a lot.  There isn’t a lot of teen historical fiction featuring boys of color, especially not with #OwnVoices authors.  Most of what’s out there is either about slaves or child soldiers, both of which are very difficult for me personally to read about.  Although I set out to find some less depressing books, I should remember that teens (my past self included) are much tougher about reading difficult topics than my current, mother of a teen self. Continue reading

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3 Don’t-Miss Picture Books

Crown: an Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. JamesCrown: an Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James. Bolden from Agate Publishing, 2017.
I’d seen this on the shelf, but was moved to check it out when listening to the Caldecott Contender episode of Fuse 8 & Kate  with my kids.  It’s a first picture book outing from the author of the early chapter book series Ruby and the Booker Street Boys, and also an illustrator debut from painter Gordon C. James.  In poetic language and stunning paintings, Barnes and James tell the story of a boy at his weekly barber shop visit, describing the way he’s treated like royalty and how his newly boosted confidence will help him do better in every aspect of his life.  It has a list of awards so long you’ll have to click “more” on Amazon to see them all.  Go read it if you haven’t already.

Water Walker by Joanne RobertsonThe Water Walker by Joanne Robertson. Second Story Press, 2017.
This is one I looked into because Debbie Reese at American Indians in Children’s Literature was so excited about it.  It’s a rare nonfiction look at a contemporary Native heroine. Nokomis loves Nibi, the water.  One night she has a dream that soon water will cost more than gold, but no one is working to protect it.  She ties on her sneakers and organizes her friends to be the Mother Earth Water Walkers and walk all around the Great Lakes.  She takes her copper pail, her Migizi Staff, and leaves gifts of semaa at every body of water.  We see her planning the walk with her friends in her kitchen, and at a microphone giving speeches at large gatherings, as well as walking.  Ojibway words like nibi and semaa are mostly used without translation, though the pictures help and there is a glossary and pronunciation guide at the back.  It’s short, and the marker illustrations are deceptively simple, but there is a lot packed into this little book about the endurance and values of Nokomis and her people. It’s an inspiration for others who care about the future of our water.

This is How We Do It by Matt LamotheThis is How We Do It by Matt Lamothe. Chronicle Kids, 2017
This one was nominated for a Cybils in elementary nonfiction, but I just pulled it off the new book shelf to put it on display and ended up taking it home instead.  The simple but effective premise is this: one day in the lives of seven kids from around the world: Japan, Peru, Iran, Russia, India, Italy, and Uganda. After being introduced to who they are, who they live with and where they live, it goes through breakfast, the trip to school, what they call their teachers, what they learn, and so on.  Mostly the page is divided into eight panels, each showing one child with one panel explaining what they’re doing, but some steps are given multiple page spreads for a bigger view of the scene.  The author’s note says that he drew the illustrations based on photographs the actual families sent him, and a photograph of each is included at the end.  I don’t often cry over books, but the ending of this one, finding unity after all the differences of the preceding day, made me tear up.  It also fascinated everyone I gave it to, from kindergarteners through middle schoolers and adults.

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Oddity and the Daybreak Bond

Here are two books that have little in common besides being contemporary speculative fiction at the middle grade level.  The first I picked solely because of the adorable yet fierce kid on the cover; the second because I liked the first book in the series.

Oddity by Sarah CannonOddity by Sarah Cannon. Feiwel and Friends, 2017.
In the New Mexico town of Oddity, many things that we would consider odd aren’t.  It’s normal to have zombie bunnies invade your room and have battles with aliens in your yard.  It’s normal to escape from deadly wild animals during gym class while your teachers watch through a closed door.  The town is run by puppets, and no one really looks at the black-clad people who stand behind them pulling the strings.  There’s also a festival and a Sweepstakes every year, where adults are chosen as winners and taken away to a fabulous new life.

Ada never questioned any of these things until her twin sister, Pearl, was taken by the sweepstakes and her parents stopped functioning from grief.  Also, the new boy next door, Cayden, is shocked by so many normal things that Ada has to question her understanding of the way things work.  And when things take a turn for the sinister, Cayden, Ada, and Ada’s best friend Raymond, will have to break lots of rules and even face down the Blurmonster and question Scoby the sentient kombucha culture to find out what’s going on.

The action is narrated with snarky, up-to-date language, while thoughts on cultural appropriation and respect for indigenous cultures lurks underneath.  Though this doesn’t appear to be an #OwnVoices book, things like Ada’s memories of Sunday hair braiding sessions with her sister, mother, and aunt in happier times touched on similar events in other books I’ve read by Black authors. This helped Ada feel like a legitimately African-American character, and the town as described is ethnically diverse, though the focus is decidedly on the adventure and the town.  Kids looking for an offbeat adventure with a heroine who is seriously not to be messed with will be very pleased.

The Daybreak Bone by Megan Frazer BlakemoreThe Daybreak Bond by Megan Frazer Blakemore. Bloomsbury, 2017.
Spoiler alert!  This is the sequel to The Firefly Code, and spoilers are inevitable.  You have been warned.  Now, the crew of friends are figuring out a way to get out of the utopian city of Old Harmonie for the first time ever.  They plan to travel to Boston to meet Mori’s grandmother’s best friend and fellow scientist Dr. Varden, whose initial research led to the creation of their friend Alanna.  But the Firefly kids’ parents think that Alanna is dangerous, and not a real person, and want to take her apart.  It takes a whole lot of thinking to disable a system meant to keep them inside and tracked, and that’s only the beginning.  On the way, they must overcome obstacles, confront their beliefs about the outside world as well as the privilege they’ve grown up with.  Underneath it all is the growing question: can they trust people whose thoughts can be manipulated?

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2018 Diversity Reading Challenge Update


This year I’m participating in the Diversity Reading Challenge hosted by Pam at an Unconventional Librarian.  I’m really enjoying the way it encourages me to diversify my diversity, as it were.  I’m leaving the ones I’d read at my last update here unbolded, for reference.  Unfortunately that New Year’s resolution to try to review books sooner after I read them is one I’m still struggling with….  and I could stand to read some more books about non-neurotypical people.  But hey! reading the Cybils middle grade graphic novel finalists was really great for filling out the graphic novel category.

  1. Written by or about a person of Hispanic origin:
  1. A book in which a character suffers from a mental illness:
  1. A book written by or about someone on the spectrum:
  1. A book with an African-American [or African] young woman as the main character:
  • Sky Full of Stars by Linda Williams Jackson
  • Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson
  • Dragons and Marshmallows. Zooey and Sassafras Book 1 by Asia Citro
  • Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (this one is definitely for adults!)
  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
  • The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson
  • Upside-Down Magic by Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle, and Emily Jenkins
  1. A book containing an Asian main characterHello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly
  1. A book with an illustrator of color
  • Crown: an Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James
  • Whoosh: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton and Don Tate
  • Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story by Paula Yoo and Lin Wang.
  1. A book with an LGBT main character
  • Spinning by Tillie Walden
  • The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee. Read by Christian Coulson.
  • Everfair by Nisi Shawl (adult)
  • That Inevitable Victorian Thing by K. Johnston
  1. A graphic novel
  1. A book with a Muslim main character
  • Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan
  • Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali
  1. A book written by or for African-American young mentocatchacheat
  • Crown: an Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James
  • Juba by Walter Dean Myers
  • To Catch a Cheat by Varian Johnson
  1. A book in which the author or narrator has a physical disability
  • Hello Goodbye Dog by Maria Gianferrari and Patrice Barton
  • You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner
  • Macy McMillan and the Rainbow Goddess by Shari Green
  • The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
  1. A book about children during the Holocaust.

If you’ve been reading anything that would help me with this challenge, or if you have ideas for categories that aren’t mentioned here, please let me know!

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Guest Post by Lexi Kozlar: Charlotte, Sometimes

A while back, a page at my library came asking for one of the New York Review Children’s Collection books.  I don’t remember what it was any more – we didn’t have it, I filled in a purchase request, the usual.  But I remembered that the NYR had sent me another book, which was still in my TBR pile on my desk.  I offered to loan it to her while she was waiting for her purchase request to come through.
That was Lexi, and she loved it.  She wrote me a thoughtful note about it. I loaned her another book; she wrote me a note about why she didn’t love it as much.  In between, she was promoted to being a clerk and I read Charlotte Sometimes, which I enjoyed, but which did not strike for me as it seemed to for Lexi that note of the perfect book at the perfect time.  And so it was that I invited Lexi to review that first book that she loved so much for me.
Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope FarmerCharlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer. New York Review Children’s Collection, 2017. (reissue, originally published 1969)
On the Sunday after Charlotte Makepeace arrives at boarding school, she wakes up to find that her surroundings have completely changed and that her roommate refers to her as “Clare” instead of “Charlotte.” On Monday, Charlotte finds herself back in familiar surroundings, and she realizes that she had traveled back in time to 1918. Charlotte adjusts to the rhythm of waking up in a different time every other morning and meeting people’s expectations in the two different eras. She and her counterpart, Clare, keep a mutual diary in the two separate eras in order to communicate important information about homework and friendship, so that they can act consistently without alerting the whole school of their time travel. As Charlotte becomes weary with time travel, she forgets details in each of the eras and starts making mistakes that other people notice and question in her homework and relationships.
Charlotte is not a very dynamic character; she does not have emotional highs and lows, but merely fluctuates between varying states of displacement and anxiety. This gives the reader to emotionally interact with a different personality type of protagonist. The author creates a strongly descriptive setting, especially of the garden that serves as a sort of mental oasis between the two eras, and helps the reader to stay afloat in the details of time travel and two different historical periods. While the protagonist is thirteen years old, the novel has an older, sadder, depressive, surreal vibe to it. Especially as the novel descends to the seance, it becomes heavy with the sorrow of the elderly host family and Charlotte’s own dark premonitions. The novel may be more appropriate for high school readers and for fans of Lucy M. Boston.
Thank you, Lexi!  For me, this had a slow, creepy vibe that reminded me of Charis Cotter’s books, like The Painting and The Swallow.
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A Sky Full of Stars by Linda Williams Jackson

I won an ARC of this book from Brandy at Random Musings of a Bibliophile last year, waited to read it until it was close to coming out… and am now behind on posting my review of it.  It is still excellent, however!

A Sky Full of Stars by Linda Williams JacksonA Sky Full of Stars by Linda Williams Jackson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.
When we left Rose Lee at the end of Midnight without a Moon, she had made the very tough decision to stay at her home rural Mississippi, despite the oppressive racism both from the whites and her grandmother who takes care of her.  There have been more random and unprosecuted shootings of blacks, adding to the general air of fear.  Still, Rose finds out that her real given name is Rosa, and decides to start calling herself that both to feel more adult and to identify with Rosa Parks.  She and her best friend Hallelujah are determined to find something they can do.  Rosa’s older cousin Shorty even starts coming to school from time to time to talk about what can be done, although he is open to using the same violent scare tactics on whites, something Rosa and Hallelujah do not want to do.

But even as Shorty wants to go too far and the adults in their life believe that laying low and being “good Negros” is the best course and are forceful in their opposition to any protests, the kids are determined to make a difference. She works not just for general improvement but also to help those in her life trying to break out of the cycle of poverty and oppression, including her pregnant cousin Queenie and an aunt who’s escaping an abusive relationship. The times are dark, but Rosa’s spirit and strength again shine brightly.

I was struck by the author’s note, where she says that she grew up in the 1970s in an old sharecropper’s shack that still had no light switches or door knobs, lending extra reliability to her accounts of Rosa.

Read Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer for a somewhat lighter look at the Civil Rights movement.

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Spinning by Tillie Walden

This was one of the Cybils teen graphic novel finalists.  (Although my son read and enjoyed the winner, Spill Zone, I ran out of time to read it myself.)

Spinning by Tillie WaldenSpinning by Tillie Walden. First Second, 2017.
Tillie Walden tells first-hand her story of ice skating in Texas, competing both individually and as part of team.  There’s a lot of sleep deprivation from waking up to practice for hours before school, as well as the required uniformity.  Tillie keeps going, perhaps drawn by the sense of belonging as opposed to her unemotional family, even as she comes to realize that she doesn’t fit.  She hides her crushes on girls, as well as her lack of Christian faith that’s pretty much assumed by everyone else.  Increasingly, even as she’s winning prizes and rising in the ice skating ranks, she hides her disenchantment with the sport in general.

Walden is straightforward about the telling, her pictures simple and realistic, mostly black and white with touches of purple, her words minimal.  And yet every detail counts here, with the illustration of a turn or the placement of words over a picture speaking volumes about what’s happening.  There is a secret romance, but nothing explicitly drawn.  Spoiler alert/trigger warning: there is an attempted assault by an adult late in the book.  The happy ending must come from the satisfaction of Tillie learning more about herself and accepting it – there is no magical moment when she’s able to have her team or her parents accept who she is.

This book would pair naturally with previous finalist Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash.  

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